Stirling Broadcast SB-88 Speakers

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

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

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

Another Classic, Updated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Final Tally

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

Stirling Broadcast SB-88

$3,450 – $3,850, depending on finish

Harbeth Compact C7ES-3

$3,690 – $3,990, depending on finish

Ryan R-610 Loudspeakers

Ryan R-610 Speaker review by Rob JohnsonRyan Speakers may be a new name to many; however, brothers Trevor and Todd started building speakers in the 1980s under the moniker Ryan Acoustics. Their designs, and the tools to optimize and improve them, have advanced in the new century, but the goal of the company remains the same: to make exceptional speakers at a down-to-earth price – and do it all in the United States from their factory in Riverside, California. They have succeeded brilliantly.

There are three different R-Series speakers with common driver designs optimized for each enclosure. The R610 reviewed here is priced at $2,000 and is a two-way bookshelf model. The R620 and R630 are 2.5- and 3-way floorstanding models, priced at $3,500 and $5,000. Multiple veneer choices are available, including walnut, oak and the clear cherry you see here, as well as custom staining options to fit a wider range of décor. I’d expect this flexibility with a much more bespoke (and expensive) product, so kudos to Ryan for being interior friendly.

These speakers instantly impress with their portrayal of Poe’s voice on “Fly Away” easily rendering reverberation heard in the recording, and simultaneously reveals the highly engaging and delicate quality to her voice. As a minimalist song, an accompanying flute remains layered in the distance behind the singer, and a piano locks in position to one side of the stage. The Ryans place all the elements of the performance slightly behind the plane of the speakers, and together this places the performers several rows down from my imaginary concert seat. Focusing on the forest rather than each individual tree, the overall musical picture is a wonderful one. Through the Ryans, a seat in row “J” is just fine with me.

It’s what’s inside that counts

The team at Ryan believes strongly in the structural rigidity that comes with the traditional box shape, reinforced with internal bracing, damping as they see fit. The cabinets are straightforward and understated (helping to keep the cost down), with the goodies on the inside – reminiscent of another highly successful West Coast speaker manufacturer. Even the felt ring around the tweeter is chosen with care, an attitude permeating this speaker’s design ethos.

Described in the product literature as a “bookshelf” design, the R610 leans towards the larger side of that moniker, measuring 16.73 inches (425mm) in height, 8.86 inches (225mm) in width, and with a depth of 12 inches (305mm) including the grille. They are mighty hefty, too, at 33 pounds (15kg) each. Inside is a 6.5 inch (165mm) Nomex cone woofer and a 1-inch (25mm) cloth dome tweeter. These tweeters are placed to the inside of the enclosure and are intended to be used that way as a mirrored pair. Placing the tweeters to the outside of the stereo pair will diffuse the soundstaging, so be sure to observe the manufacturer’s suggestion when placing the R610s. And plan on investing in a good pair of speaker stands to get the most out of the R610, as this is crucial to getting maximum bass extension. According to the team at Ryan, all their drivers are designed in-house at the facility in Riverside, California.

Ryan R-610 Speaker review by Rob Johnson

Up and running

The R610s are easy to set up; however the best integration in my room is with 26-inch speaker stands, keeping the tweeters close to ear level, so keep that in mind in relation to the height of your listening chair or couch. The manual included with the R610s provides excellent insight to new or experienced audio enthusiasts, so it is worth perusing as you are putting yours into service. They suggest placing the speakers 6–10 feet (1.8–3.0m) apart, at least 1.6 feet (0.5m) from the rear wall, and at least 2.0 feet (0.6m) from the side walls. This proved an excellent starting point, as did the ten degrees of toe-in, though I ultimately found nirvana with slightly more in my room. Again, this will depend on the exact tonal balance you prefer.

While the R610s serve up bass that is tight and tuneful, extreme low bass is lacking. In my larger listening room, roll-off becomes noticeable at about 80Hz. With test tones descending below that frequency, the drop-off becomes even more pronounced. Those who crave deeper, thunderous bass should consider supplementing the R610s with a high quality subwoofer. Or better yet – if budget allows – try one of the larger Ryan speakers which is designed to integrate all the audible frequencies optimally.

Other than inability to create deep bass, the frequency spectrum doesn’t overemphasize any region that creates an obvious imbalance. With a very neutral profile, these speakers work very well with every genre we throw at them. Experimenting with rock, electronica, classical, jazz, blues, and vocal-centric music, all prove enjoyable. It’s easy to get engrossed in the music rather than analyzing it.

Left to right imaging exceeds the speaker boundaries creating a huge soundstage, never drawing attention to the sound broadcast point, but to the music around them. The Afro Cuban All-Stars “A Toda Cuba le Gusta” illustrates this perfectly, defining and separating the musical elements contained with only a slight dithering of the big picture.

Epitomizing high performance for the price

The Ryan R610s peg the price-o-meter. $2,000 is still an investment for most seeking great sound, but well within the reach of those making a great music system a priority. Their modest form factor makes them easy to integrate into any environment and underlines Ryan’s commitment to research and development. Living with the Ryans for some time, they continue to impress. For all they offer at their modest price point, the R610 speakers certainly earn a 2015 TONEAudio Exceptional Value Award.  –Rob Johnson

Ryan R-610 Speaker review by Rob Johnson

Additional listening

There’s something awesome about a well-executed pair of 2-way speakers. Much like a first generation Miata on a curvy road, you don’t always need 500 horsepower to have a great time. Going straight to my small (10 x 13 foot) listening room after photos, the R610s are perfection: powered by the Nagra 300i tube amplifier with 20 watts per channel of 300B power, the Ryan speakers are well-served by the delicacy of the Nagra.

Even with something as cloudy and compressed as Todd Rundgren’s classic, Something/Anything, the R610s do an excellent job unraveling the music presented on a large canvas, beautifully disappearing in the room. Yet with an excellent recording, they take the presentation further, throwing a stereo image that extends way beyond the speaker boundaries, with a tonal purity that rivals much more expensive speakers.

Where the KEF LS-50 is more precise in terms of imaging performance, the R610 is more homogenous with additional weight in the lower register. Taking advantage of room gain in my small listening room was a bonus, and I wouldn’t suggest using these speakers in a room much bigger than 11 x 14 feet if you want solid bass response. I must confess a bias towards a well-executed soft dome tweeter, so if you share this preference, the R610 will thrill you. Should you be more in the ribbon or metal tweeter camp, you may find these speakers a little dull. Choices, choices.

Again, these speakers strike a natural chord, and the only thing they lack that the big bucks speakers have more of is ultimate resolution of minute musical details. Unless you are playing them side by side next to a great pair of $30,000 speakers at high volume, you won’t really notice. While most of my listening was done with the 20 watt per channel Nagra amplifier, substituting higher powered amplifiers of the tube and solid state variety worked well – bottom line, the better your components, the more music the Ryans will reveal.

For all of our readers that freak out when we review mega components, the Ryan Audio R610 speakers are as real as it gets. Buy a pair. I’m going to. – Jeff Dorgay

Ryan R610 Loudspeakers

MSRP: $1,999


Analog Source SME Model 10 with Model 10 tonearm    Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Digital Sources Mac Mini with jRiver and Roon playback    dCS Debussy
Amplification Burmester 911 mk3
Preamplification Coffman Labs G1-A
Speakers Sonus faber Olympica III
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley, and RSA Mongoose power cords
Accessories ASC tube traps    Mapleshade Samson audio racks    Coffman Labs Equipment Footers    AudioQuest Jitterbug

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

Blumenstein Audio 2.2-Channel Speaker Package

The modest-looking speakers from Blumenstein Audio belie the capabilities contained therein.

We’ve reviewed the Seattle company’s Thrashers, speakers light on looks but heavy on ready-to-rock, garage-grade power. The somewhat more refined single-driver Orca Classic monitors, paired with one of Blumenstein’s Dungeness Classic subwoofers, impressed our staff.

Combining the new Orca Mini monitors with two of Blumenstein’s new powered Dungeness Max subwoofers takes the system to the next level. Having two subs in the 2.2-channel system—which starts at $1,800—augments the Orcas with greatly improved low frequencies. Though matching Orca stands are available, each subwoofer begs you to set an Orca on top of it (placing vibration-dampening material between the units, of course). And with separate enclosures, the subwoofers and monitors can be independently toed-in, and there’s plenty of room atop each subwoofer cabinet to slide the monitors forward or backward.

Hull and Rigging

Blumenstein offers its cabinets—made from nothing but wood, glue and finish—in either birch wood or bamboo. The latter option is available with natural, caramelized, or two-tone finishes. Blumenstein uses non-toxic linseed oil instead of varnish to give the wood a delicate sheen.

The front-ported Dungeness Max has a rectangular footprint of 7.75 by 11.25 inches, which makes it easy to slide in between furniture, and with a height of 22.5 inches, it can fit easily under a desk or table. The Max features a 25-watt built-in amplifier and Blumenstein says it will reproduce frequencies as low as 27 Hz.

The Orcas sport a single pair of binding posts on the back for banana plugs, spades or bare speaker wire. As a powered subwoofer, the Dungeness Max has a knob on the back that controls power and volume. A second knob below that adjusts the crossover point from 60 to 180 Hz. Then comes the wiring…

Blumenstein offers a few ways to connect the subs into an audio system; the easiest requires simply running parallel split sets of speaker wires from a single amp terminal directly to the Dungeness and the Orca;my biggest complaint is that the subwoofer binding posts are tiny, spring-loaded connectors, like those on my old NAD 3020 integrated amp. While easy to use, they’re so small that they limit the gauge of wire you can use.

If you have a preamp with line-outs and a standalone power amp, the amp will drive the Orcas directly, while you connect the Dungeness to the preamp using RCA cables. When using two subs, the left one connects to the left preamp line-out and the right one connects to the right line-out.

Diving In

With two standalone Orcas used as desktop monitors placed about two feet away, the sound is mighty impressive. The lone driver does a very good job with imaging, projecting convincing audio into the soundstage. During the Zero7 song “Destiny,” the Orcas present Sia Furler’s voice fatigue-free and with nuances that reflect the emotion of her performance. Other instruments panned far right and left float into the periphery, beyond the plane of the speakers.

Of course, a speaker this size does have bass limitations. With the subwoofer pair connected, low notes join the acoustic presentation. The ability to adjust the toe-in of the subs independently and the crossover point allows you to tailor bass response to your preference without affecting the Orcas.

With an Orca atop each Dungeness Max and the resulting columns about 10 feet from my listening seat, the Orcas deliver a convincing sonic image, with vocals remaining slightly warm yet highly believable. Compared to near-field listening, the experience is akin to moving back several rows in an auditorium. There’s a bigger overall picture, but with broader dispersion, the density and tangibility of the musical elements decreases. The Dungeness Max subs create solid and tuneful bass, but larger listening rooms—like mine, at 17 by 20 feet—might be a bit too much for them to tackle. In a bedroom, den or smaller-sized living room, they offer very satisfying bass, room-filling sound and a highly enjoyable overall musical presentation.

With a wide-dispersion driver, the Orcas are not too fussy with placement, and because they’re small, the speakers are easy to adjust. For the subs, you can employ simple tweaks of placement and volume to generate just the right amount of low-end augmentation for your needs. The combined system proves incredibly versatile and fulfilling. With hours of listening, I need to keep reminding myself that the Orcas start at just $500 per pair.

Yes, there are better and more resolving speakers out there. However, the efficient Blumensteins offer a very high performance-to-price ratio. By selling unnecessary components like speaker grilles and stands as optional accessories, Blumenstein is able to offer the Orca speakers at a very reasonable cost, allowing those on a tight budget to start with a stereo pair and then add subwoofers later.

For those with $1,800 on hand, the discounted 2.2-channel package is an especially good choice. While this system doesn’t offer the refined look some buyers may be after, the simple beauty of the wood finish will appeal to many, and the sound quality you’re getting for the price makes the entire system a major consideration.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

As an advocate of single-driver speakers—longtime TONE readers might remember that I started out with a pair of Lowthers as my reference speakers—I find something totally beguiling about them, though they are often misunderstood, perhaps because of their deceptive simplicity.

You might think that the appeal of single-driver speakers is a complete no brainer, because they don’t have crossovers for the audio signal to contend with, but in my experience with single-driver speakers, the power you feed them is everything. Because these speakers have such a delicacy about them—and the Orcas are no different—picking the wrong amplifier will give you dreadful results. Much like with OTL amplifiers, the result is usually either magical or somewhat flat. And if you’ve had the latter experience, you didn’t do it right.

Interestingly, both sets of Blumenstein speakers I’ve heard here at the TONE studio have sounded incredibly good with the $90,000-per-pair Pass Labs Xs300 monoblocks I use as my main reference. They also sound spectacular with a vintage Harman Kardon A-500 integrated tube amplifier. Oddly, the 300B-based push-pull amplifier from Nagra does not produce magic with the Orcas, though the 845 SET monoblocks I have on hand do. And so it goes, my personal favorite amplifier for driving these exquisite little speakers is the SIT-2 First Watt amplifier (also by Pass Labs), which produces 10 watts per channel from a single gain device. (Look out for our upcoming long-term review for more details.)

When you get it right and you don’t tax the Orcas with Audioslave at maximum volume, you will be shocked at just how deep into the music these little speakers let you hear. If you aren’t going desktop/near field, I suggest a room about 11 by 14 feet or thereabouts.  Music that is more vocally focused, without massive dynamic swings, proves enveloping. The first Crosby, Stills and Nash album is absolutely dreamy, as is Yim Yames’ Tribute To. For that matter, anything mostly acoustic or with sparse vocals will truly blow you away through this system, which reveals just how much music is lurking in your favorite recordings.

Just as you wouldn’t drag race a 400-cc sport bike against a liter bike, don’t expect the Orcas—even with the subwoofers—to blast AC/DC at concert-hall levels. But with the right recording, these speakers will not only shine but also make you appreciate the journey more than you ever thought possible, especially for the price. If you’ve never had the single-driver experience, I can think of no better place to begin your journey than with the Blumenstein Orcas. You may never want to leave.

Blumenstein Audio 2.2-Channel Speaker Package

Starting at $1,800

Dynaudio XEO 4 speakers

Dynaudio made a big splash with their wireless XEO speakers two years ago, but their engineering staff has not been sitting on their laurels.  The new second generation speakers feature more wireless bandwidth, better drivers and more extensive tuning.  Our recent visit to the Dynaudio factory in Denmark found their engineers intensely involved in wireless development, so you know this is a solid path for Dynaudio’s future.

The new XEO range, introduced at this year’s Munich High End show builds on Dynaudios initial success, making wireless audio a much higher performance option than ever before.  Watch for a full review soon.

Dynaudio XEO 4 speakers


MartinLogan Motion 35XT Bookshelf Speakers

Many people know MartinLogan for its svelte, even avant-garde-looking electrostatic floorstanding speakers, which have earned the company a large and dedicated fan base. But, like a good scientist at work, MartinLogan does not rest on their laurels, continuing to experiment with new designs, like the Motion 35XT, that give potential customers great sound for the dollar. These speakers are designed to sound great as a stereo pair or with other speakers in the Motion line as part of a home-theater setup.

Under the Microscope

These mini Martins combine the brand’s Folded Motion Transducer tweeter with a more conventional-looking 6.5-inch woofer sporting an aluminum cone and ported out the back. The 35XT specifications state that the frequency response ranges from 50 Hz all the way up to 25 kHz. Into a 4-ohm load, they can handle amplifiers delivering 20 to 250 watts. Each speaker measures 13.5 inches tall, 7.6 inches wide and 11.8 inches deep, including the length of the binding posts. With solid construction and a substantial magnet for drivers, each weighs in at 18.5 lbs, which is relatively hefty for speakers this size.

Appearance-wise, the speakers don’t command the sculpture-like attention that their big electrostatic brothers do; the XT form factor is nondescript by comparison. ML finishes the cabinets in piano black or black cherrywood gloss. The last visual element to consider is the metal perforated grilles, which lend the speakers a look similar to ML’s electrostats, though they are magnetically attached and can be easily removed if desired. (Sonically, I found little difference with the grilles on or off.) But if you have small children who enjoy pushing elevator buttons and doorbells, the exposed center of a woofer cone can look mighty tempting.


As with ML’s ESL speakers, the XT’s manual offers concise setup instructions. Each speaker comes with four adhesive pads for easy grip on a shelf or a speaker stand. Once the general location is determined, ML suggests toeing in the speakers directly at the listener, which works splendidly in my listening room with the tweeters at ear level. The size of your room will determine how close you place the speakers to the side walls to maximize imaging and bass performance.

The speakers are easily connected to an amp, with ML’s oval-shaped five-way binding posts making light work of torquing down the speaker cables without damaging the cable or binding post. Two sets of binding posts allowing for bi-wiring or bi-amplification, should the listener prefer that configuration. The binding posts are offset on the speaker body, which makes this task even easier, whether you choose bi-wire or single-wire operation.

Testing in Vivo

The MLs immediately impress with their ability to disappear into the soundstage and music drifting in all directions around the speakers. The resulting sound portrayal enables a wide left-to-right stereo image complemented by an equally compelling sense of depth. Depending on the recording, there are some instances where musical elements project well in front of the speakers.

The 35XTs uncover a lot of fine detail and nuance in recordings, which contributes to the sense of ambient sound around them. At the same time, they do not lean toward ear-singing fatigue, a testament to ML’s years of ESL design and voicing. In the context of gear at my disposal, female vocals retain a natural, non-exaggerated musical presence, as demonstrated through Pink Martini’s album Hang On Little Tomato. Cymbal shimmer, horns blasts, harp plucks and piano notes showcase the speakers’ high- and mid-frequency extension.

As with most small-box designs, bass has its limits, so those craving deep and powerful bass might consider alternate or supplemental speaker options. Below 50 Hz, bass loses its growl through the 35XTs and a subwoofer like those offered by ML will pick up the slack. But what bass the 35XTs do reproduce comes in tight and tuneful. Like a seat further back in an auditorium, drum impacts sound quite real, but they lack an up-close level of punch and slam. Electronica tracks from Deadmau5 and Armin Van Buuren offer plenty of snap and excitement.

The balance of all these elements proves delightful during long listening sessions. These speakers do offer some surprises, as guitar strums and background vocals spring forth from the blackness and into the periphery.

Perpetual Motion

Though ML is known better for its more expensive ESL speakers, it’s marvelous to see the company price a set of speakers under $1,200, putting them into the reach of many audio enthusiasts seeking high-quality monitors. The gloss-finished wooden cabinets and metal speaker grilles alone give the outward impression of a more expensive design. And of course, fantastic sonics for their price point reinforce that assessment.

Used as a stereo pair, the ML 35XT speakers offer a lot of sound for the dollar. Other than limits to bass frequencies, the rest of the audio spectrum proves very enjoyable. The speakers may even beguile a listener toward couch-lock, repeating the phrase, “Okay, I’ll play just one more song.”

For those who want a stereo pair of speakers now, but are considering a home-theater setup in the future, it’s also great to know you are preserving your speaker investment. If budget allows later for the floorstanding version of the XTs, the smaller speakers can always be utilized as surrounds. In that scenario, a user can also rest assured knowing that the common drivers used in the Motion XT series speakers will offer a perfectly synergistic match. Our publisher has also mentioned that the XTs work very well as rear speakers in a multichannel system with MartinLogan ESLs as the front channels.

By simply filling out the warranty card and sending it to ML within 30 days of purchase, an owner receives a five-year insurance policy against problems with the speaker, which underlines the company’s commitment to its customers’ long-term satisfaction—whether an owner chooses the high-end or entry-level models. With that level of confidence behind the speaker, and the marvelous sound they produce, these ML speakers are a great option to consider.

Martin Logan Motion 35XT bookshelf speakers

MSRP: $1,200 per pair


Digital sources Mac Mini    dCS Debussy    JRiver Media Center 20    Tidal music service
Analog source SME 10 turntable with SME 10 tonearm and Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Amplifiers Burmester 911 MK3    Benchmark AHB2
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Speakers Sonus faber Olympica III
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley     RSA Mongoose power cords
Accessories ASC tube traps    Mapleshade Samson audio racks

MartinLogan Motion 35XT Speakers

MartinLogan continues to expand their phenomenal Motion series of loudspeakers to the new 35XTs you see here, featuring a 6.5” woofer and their incredible folded motion (ribbon) tweeter, all in a solid wood cabinet, available in a variety of colors, including high gloss black.

As with every MartinLogan speaker, these are painstakingly crafted and reveal a level of music that is above and beyond their modest price. Voiced to match the floor standing speakers in the Motion line, these can either function as a high performance/minimal form factor pair of rear surround speakers in an all Motion system (though they do mate very well with MartinLogan electrostatic speakers as well) or a great pair of stand mounted speakers in a dedicated two channel system.

MartinLogan Motion 35XT Speakers


Alta Audio FRM-2 Speakers

The arrival of the Alta Audio FRM-2 loudspeakers exposed a certain prejudice or bias of mine against ribbon tweeters. But it’s a valid one, as I’d never heard a ribbon tweeter that was properly integrated with the rest of the drivers in the system, nor had I ever experienced a ribbon tweeter with a natural high end.  My audio pals with a penchant for razor-sharp transients swear by them, but I’d always come away from them fatigued.  So I must admit that when I was unpacking these scrumptious speakers, my heart sank just a little bit.

And speaking of scrumptious, to someone who spent his formative years in an auto-body shop, and later as a photographer around some of the world’s finest automobiles, the finish of the FRM-2s almost defies definition.  The finish on the review samples exceeds that of anything I’ve seen on a Bentley or Aston Martin, and the new Mercedes S-Class sitting in the driveway looks pathetic in comparison.  The same goes for the audio world: let’s just say the FRM-2s have the finest finish I’ve seen applied to a set of loudspeakers.  And I know that takes a lot of hand work to get right.

While our test samples arrived in a Spinal Tap-like “how much more black can these be?” finish, Alta’s head designer Michael Levy has told us nearly any automotive color can be accommodated.

However, a pretty box is meaningless without sound to match, and I’d buy a pair of FRM-2s if they looked like Bluemenstein Thrashers.  Fortunately for $13,000 a pair you get great looks and great sound.  These little speakers have destroyed all of my preconceived notions as to what a modest sized speaker is capable of.

Keith Jarrett’s At the Blue Note has a wonderful sense of ambiance, with just enough of the audience mixed in to feel dimensional, and is accompanied by a cast of phenomenal musicians.  I’m instantly struck at how completely natural his piano sounds, as well as the cymbals – they just float in the air perfectly, without the slightest hint of sibilance or being goosed for effect.  As wonderful as the instruments come through, the telltale sign is Jarrett’s trademark groaning.  As much as I love Jarrett’s work, this is always aggravating, yet through the FRM-2s, it creeps in gently and then is quickly gone, almost like a whisper.  I’ve never experienced this effect in any speaker before.

Charlie Haden’s double bass work on the Jarrett album sends me in the opposite direction, digging out Shellac’s At Action Park to sample the machine-gun bass line in “Crow.”  Again, the speed of the FRM-2s six-inch bass driver, utilizing Alta’s XTL bass tuning system along with a highly inert cabinet offers up serious bass grunt and definition.  As the rest of the staff trickled in to audition these speakers, they all offered up the same descriptions without being prodded by yours truly.  Four staff members all remarked, “these sound like great electrostats, but with bass!”  And I would add great dynamics, too.

Plumbing the depths of these speakers’ LF capabilities lead me to the last Simian Mobile Disco album, Unpatterns. Cranking up the Devialet 120 used for most of the review had me looking around for the subwoofer and the supermodels. I felt like I was at Fashion Week with the powerful, grinding bass coming out of these relatively small speakers, REL subwoofer (review next issue) unplugged from the AC mains.  The FRM-2s move major air.

More than just bass

Another fun test track here at TONEAudio is Dead Can Dance’s “Yulunga (Spirit Dance)” from the recently remastered SACDs. The opening is ominous and creepy, with an incredibly wide soundfield.  This track features a great balance of real and electronic sounds that don’t necessarily reveal everything about tone and timbre, but a great pair of speakers will disappear completely, rendering a wealth of spatial cues.  Check and double check.

Devo’s debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! produced by Brian Eno, does the same thing, yet in a wackier way.  Mark Mothersbaugh’s trippy vocals float all over the room, with ethereal synth effects and overprocessed guitar everywhere.  Not a single natural sound here, yet the speed of the FRM-2s presents this classic in a truly psychedelic way.  Big, big, fun on tap.  Go straight to “Shrivel Up.”

Much like one of Todd Rundgren’s Utopia albums, the Little Village album reveals  highly layered vocals with three guys that sound very similar.  John Hiatt, Nick Lowe and Ry Cooder all have a very similar phrasing and tone that can blend together on a speaker lacking in resolution, yet through the FRM-2s, these three voices all have a distinct sound.

No matter what the program material, the FRM-2s never cross that line that every other ribbon driver based system I’ve experienced crosses.  These speakers have an intoxicating ability to render inner detail, with plenty of transient attack, yet have a relaxed quality like a pair of soft dome tweeters.  It’s very close to magic.  This is one of those rare speakers that has me agonizing between exploring new music and wanting to revisit so many favorites, just to see what treasure would be revealed through this new lens.

Easily integrated

With a rated sensitivity of 87.5 dB @ 2.83 volts @ one meter, you’d think the Altas need a ton of power to work their magic, but again, the preconceived notion is wrong.  Even the 35 watt per channel Van Alstine Ultravalve amplifier provides highly pleasing results in a smaller room, and while bone crushing volume isn’t achievable, they play loud enough on all but really heavy rock records to be engaging.

The first half of this review was conducted in my new home listening room that only measures 11 x 14 feet, with modest GIK room treatments.  Bass traps in the corner, a few diffusor panels behind the listening chair and one 242 panel at each first reflection point.  The FRM-2s proved easy to set up, and even with the speakers placed somewhat randomly in the room, threw an excellent three dimensional image.  Utilizing the supplied stands (an extra $5,000 expense) put the tweeters right at ear level, and even with a slight toe-in, proved excellent in this small room.  Because these speakers are capable of such solid low frequency response, they can be placed a bit farther out in a small room than one might do with something like a KEF LS-50.

Again, the benefit is getting the punctilious imaging of a small monitor with the bass response of a full-range speaker.  An even bigger surprise was how well this performance translated into a large room.  For those just tuning in to TONE, my main listening room is 16 x 25 feet, with a pitched roof and a nice blend of absorption and diffusion, removing the slap echo without being dead and overdamped.

Powering the FRM-2s with the prodigious Pass Labs Xs300 monoblocks was an eye opener.  Much like putting the pedal down in a base model Porsche Boxster and then climbing into a 911 Carrera S, there’s just more oomph there.  The speakers still had great LF traction, and upon spinning the Stereophile test disc, there was indeed solid output at 30hz, though it did drop off sharply after that.  No shame at all for a speaker like this.

Should you have more clean power at your disposal, these mighty little speakers will not disappoint you.  Running through some heavier rock records, I was constantly surprised at how far I could push them without breakup or collapse.  AC/DC, Van Halen and the White Stripes were all highly satisfying.

The FRM-2 is the perfect speaker for someone wanting state-of-the-art performance without having to deal with a pair of massive, floor-standing loudspeakers.  Even in the context of a six-figure system, the Alta Audio speakers are never the weak link in the chain.  It is as easy to hear the subtle differences between ARC, Burmester and Robert Koda preamplifiers as it is between phono cartridges and cables.  These speakers could be an incredible reviewing tool.  Hint, hint to Santa Claus:  I’d love a pair of these under the Christmas tree.

In a word, awesome

The Alta Audio FRM-2s shatter every preconceived notion I’ve ever had about ribbon tweeters and associated issues.  Having had the pleasure of listening to some fantastic speakers from Dynaudio, Focal and Sonus Faber – all in the $12,000 to $20,000 price range – the FRM-2 is easily at the head of the class.  And one of the most musically engaging speakers I’ve heard at any price.

Considering the performance that these speakers have turned in, I can’t even imagine what Alta Audio designer Michael Levy has in store for us with his new flagship speaker.  I can’t wait to find out.

Alta Audio FRM-2 Speakers

$13,000/pair,  Low Profile stands, $2,000/pair, $5,000/pair optional Onyx Black stands


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP/Tri Planar/Lyra Atlas
Digital Source dCS Vivaldi stack
Amplification Pass Labs Xs 300 monoblocks and Xs Preamplifier    Devialet 120
Cable Cardas Clear

Sonus faber Olympica III Speakers

Sonus Faber Olympica III review by Rob Johnson ToneAudioAt TONEAudio, we’ve had the pleasure of testing Sonus faber’s flagship Aida speaker ($150,000), the Guinari Evolution ($22,900), and one of their more entry-level offerings, the Venere 3.0 ($3,500). In each of these cases, the sound and build quality represents a high bar for their respective price tags.

Not wanting to neglect a middle child in the Sonus faber family, we put the new $13,500 Olympica III floorstanders to the test. The Olympica line of products makes available three models. The Olympica I is a stand-mounted, two-way design. Olympica II is a three-way floorstander with a single bass driver. The Olympica III is the biggest of the bunch with two 7-inch (180mm) bass drivers supplementing the 1.14-inch (29 mm) tweeter and a 5.9-inch (150mm) mid. A center-channel speaker rounds out the lineup should a prospective buyer seek a home theater option.

While there are several great companies producing speaker drivers, and many other speaker manufacturers build cabinets around them, Sonus faber takes a different approach. All their drivers are designed in-house, and each is mated with a cabinet shape which gets the most from it. As a holistic package the Olympica is designed from the ground up with system synergy the priority.

Grace of a figure skater

Made entirely in Italy like Sonus faber’s flagship series, the Olympicas receive the same attention to detail at each level of the build process. Cabinet woodworking is gorgeous, and the resulting products have the appearance of fine furniture. Our sample pair sport the walnut finish. Panels of grain-matched wood curve delicately from the front to the back of the cabinet. Eleven pinstripe-thin maple joints separate the 12 walnut sections on each side of the cabinet, providing an elegant and subtle contrast. For those who prefer a darker colored cabinet, Olympicas are also available with a graphite finish. Even with the greyish-black stain, the wood grain remains beautiful and clearly visible. Regardless of color, several layers of clear lacquer provide a protective and attractive semi-gloss coat.

A top-down view of the leather-topped and backed speaker cabinet reveals a uniquely engineered shape to minimize cabinet reflections. For lack of a better descriptor, it’s an angled teardrop shape with the rounder edge toward the front and the point out the back. The rear portion is asymmetrical with a bit more swoop to one side. This configuration facilitates the addition of Sonus faber’s unique perforated port design on one rear edge. Unlike most small and round bass ports, the Olympica sports a two-inch wide metal-grated port that extends the full length of the speaker. Gracing the cabinet base, a metal four-point outrigger configuration creates additional stability for the narrow towers. Tightening and loosening the spike height facilitates leveling so the speakers keep all four tiny feet firmly anchored to the floor.

Even the metal speaker cable binding posts offer a unique design. With a teardrop profile that mirrors the speaker shape, it’s easy to get a good grip on the posts and tighten them firmly by hand. Dual posts allow for bi-wiring or bi-amplification, and an included, stamped-metal jumper connects the two. The sum of all these parts assigns the Olympica III dimensions of 43.8 inches (1114 cm) in height, 10.25 inches (260mm) across the widest part of the cabinet, and a 16.25-inch (406mm) depth.

Warming up

Speakers are always a tricky piece of equipment to review because each speaker interacts a little differently with a listening space. After a few hours of scooting them around the room in small increments left, right, backward, forward and with varying degrees of toe-in, they finally landed in a location I marked immediately with painter’s tape. To facilitate the process, the Olympica manual suggests some sample speaker and listening seat placement suggestions. These ideas do offer a good starting point for your quest. While the placement process remains a little tedious, these speakers will reward you for the effort.

The aforementioned speaker port can aim to the outsides or insides of the speaker pair since there’s no specific left and right speaker configuration. Trying the ports to the outside first, then swapping the speakers to aim the ports toward the space between speakers, I find the latter configuration offers best sound in my room. Owners should try both and decide for themselves what sounds best to them. Once in place, the Olympicas reveal all they are capable of.  And they have a lot of capability.

Sonus Faber Olympica III review by Rob Johnson ToneAudio

The Decathalon

Decathletes are like the Swiss Army knives of the sporting world. They must do very well at ten different events in order to win. Of course, each individual will have his or her own weaknesses and strengths to bring to the table. Like these athletes, the Sonus faber Olympicas perform very well regardless of the musical genre or source material. In some cases, they truly excel as a reference.

For instance, once the speakers are placed optimally, the sound-staging ability defies expectations. First, the speakers draw no particular attention to their physical location. Sound floats around them without bunching up around the speakers or at the midpoint between them.  Second, musical elements of my favorite songs, panned to the extreme left and right, wrap far into the room and sometimes even startle me with their reach toward the rear of the room. Hooverphonic’s “One Way Ride” offers the illusion of movement as some synthesized tones ping-pong back and forth. With the Sonus fabers, sound transits far beyond the speakers themselves as if it somehow broke free of any barriers and traveled at will. My Piega P-10 reference speakers are no slouch in this characteristic, but the Olympicas exceed them by a significant margin.

Sonus faber’s specifications for these speakers indicate a frequency response of 20kHz down to 35Hz – not quite full range, but close to it. When listening, I long occasionally for the feeling of extremely low and heavy bass on tracks like “Substitute for Love” from Madonna’s Ray of Light album. But honestly, I have little non-electronic music in my collection that delves that deep. For most of the music I enjoy, the subterranean bass extension is not missed. The rest of the Olympica bass spectrum proves excellent. There’s no shortage of rumble in the sofa and floor, and the level of tight, tuneful tangibility projected from the Olympicas is marvelous. On the opposite end of the audio spectrum, highs, too are very well extended but not hot in the mix. Bell strikes, like those on Ben Harper’s “Alone,” have a tuneful decay that reverberates so long that – like fossil dating – a listener almost needs to define it by a half-life.

Vocals and instruments with frequencies residing in the middle of the spectrum are never neglected in favor of the extremes. Unlike my reference speakers with a ribbon tweeter and midrange, the traditional cone shape of the Olympicas offers a slightly more tangible presence.  As with the ribbons, sound remains natural, but Sonus faber drivers add a degree of palpability and up-close sense of the musical performance. The album Perennial Favorites from the Squirrel Nut Zippers represents an interesting challenge for speakers. With multiple vocals, percussion, strings, piano, harp, a horn section, and many other instruments spread across the stage and layered on top of one another, there’s potential for a sonically muddled mess. The Olympicas manage to sort out all that information, across a wide dynamic range, to present each individual element with a convincing illusion of a live performance.

Final score

There’s no such thing as a best speaker. Upstream component synergy, interaction with the room, music genre, and a listener’s personal sonic preferences all weigh into the equation. In my case, I knew a day would come when a set of visiting speakers would unseat my current reference at a price point I can manage. Apparently, that day has come.

Through the Olympicas, there’s only one real downside for me: I’m truncating the lowest bass frequencies. However, other positive characteristics outweigh my quibbles. Soundstaging prowess, palpability, and pure musical enjoyment in my listening space remain top-notch though the Olympicas. There are certainly speakers out there – including Sonus faber’s own flagship designs – which can reproduce full frequency response, a bit more close-to-the-action musical detail, and perhaps more overall sonic heft. However, they will likely cost significantly more.

The Sonus faber Olympica IIIs are marvelous speakers. At $13,500 per pair, they should be. However, there’s a lot to consider as part of that price tag. First, the build quality and finish are stellar – more like a piece of carefully rendered artwork than a speaker. Secondly, a lot of research and development went into their design, including the creation of in-house drivers. Finally, this package’s performance in my listening room exceeds that of some more expensive speakers which have visited. For those like me who value their stereo more than their car, the Olympica III speakers are worth saving for.

If you are investing in speakers to live with for a long time, and this price range is within your reach, be sure to audition the Olympica III. Perhaps like me, you’ll find they are speakers to long for. I’m purchasing the demo pair.

Sonus Faber Olympica III review by Rob Johnson ToneAudio

Additional Listening

by Jeff Dorgay

Sonus faber’s $120,000-a-pair Aida is one of the most breathtaking speakers I’ve had the pleasure to spend time with, but like my GamuT S9s or the equally enticing Focal Grande Utopia EM, all of these speakers are out of reach for most audiophiles.  Yet after listening to the Olympica IIIs for a month before handing them off to Rob Johnson, it’s very exciting to see just how much of the Aida special sauce is present in these speakers at a much more affordable price.  Yes, yes, I know we’ll get all kinds of flak for saying “affordable” and “$13.5k a pair” in the same sentence, but it’s all relative. I know plenty of people that have spent way more than this on a motorcycle, jet ski, wristwatch or a Leica M and a couple of lenses.  If you love music, these speakers aren’t out of reach for a decent number of people and the pleasure they bring is well worth the asking price.

Best of all, these speakers perform well with a wide range of amplification, so if you have a modest system and are looking at these as your ultimate speaker that you will buy now and upgrade electronics around as you go, consider this – they sound awesome with a 35 watt per channel PrimaLuna integrated or a Rega Brio-R.  Their 90dB/1 watt sensitivity allows even modest amplifiers enough headroom to fill a room with sound.

If you were listening to something like Crosby, Stills and Nash, or your favorite solo female vocalist, you might even be challenged to hear the difference between the $120k/pair Aida and the Olympica.  All the major attributes of the flagship speaker are here in spades.

For this price, you should expect great sonics, and the Olympicas deliver.  Yet they also manage to be perfect examples of industrial art as well, with no part of their design or construction less than exquisite, and that’s what makes the Olympica shine above every other speaker I’ve spent time with at this price, save Focal’s Diablo Utopia.  This is a product you’ll love to look at and have as part of your life, even when not playing music!

I am thrilled to grant the Sonus faber Olympica III speakers one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2014.  They are certainly a personal favorite.

Sonus faber Olympica III Speakers

MSRP: $13,500


Speakers Piega P10
Amplifier Burmester 911 Mk3
Preamplifier Coffman Labs G1-A
Analog SME 10    Dynavector 17D3
Digital Light Harmonic DaVinci   Mac Mini    JRiver Media Center 19
Cables Jena Labs
Power Running Springs Audio Haley    Cardas/RSA Mongoose Power Cords

Devialet 120

Everything we loved about the Devialet 110 is here in spades with the new 120, but the addition of a crucial feature makes the 120 more than a simple upgrade.  Devialet’s new SAM (Speaker Active Matching) technology, in a nutshell, provides a more synergistic coupling between amplifier and loudspeaker, thanks to their engineers harnessing more power of the on board DSPs.  Visually, the 120 looks identical to the 110, with the same compliment of inputs and outputs.

SAM is an optimized program for your individual speaker (Devialet is constantly adding new SAM profiles to their website) that claims full phase alignment over the entire frequency spectrum and extended low frequency response down to 25Hz.  While we have no way of measuring this, the results with the Penaudio Cenya speakers, the KEF LS-50s and the KEF Blades was nothing short of stunning.  We are currently working on a full review of the Devialet Ensemble system, utilizing a pair of Devialet designed Ahtom GT1 speakers.

This is not a subtle upgrade.  While the KEF Blades are no slouch in the bass department, it was easy to hear more extreme bass extension on bass heavy tracks from Pink Floyd and Daft Punk.  Not only was there more detail in the low bass as you would get with a top notch subwoofer, there was more punch, more weight.  The heartbeat in the classic Floyd track “Speak to Me: Breathe” now feels heavier, more ominous than without SAM.  For the Thomas’s doubting SAM, the Devialet remote allows you to dial up how much SAM processing you’d like in the system, making it easier to see the results first hand.

In my smaller listening room, this proved very useful with the LS-50 and the Cenyas, as there was just a bit too much bass with SAM set at 100.  Both work best with SAM set in the 60-70 range.  With SAM engaged I was able to shut the subwoofer off with both of these speakers, it was no longer needed.

The new functionality that SAM brings to the picture, along with the additional 10 watts per channel that the 120 offers is only a firmware upgrade away for existing Devialet 110 owners. Fantastic sound and drop dead gorgeous casework aside, this is the best thing about owning a Devialet product is that they are future proof.  It was awesome to view the 120 at the Munich hifi show and be told, “You only need to download the new firmware and you have a 120.”  That’s music to my ears.

Devialet 120


Blumenstein Audio Thrashers Speakers

One of the signs of a mature audiophile is whether they have a true garage system—not the wife’s old Lloyd’s faux-wood tuner/record player/cassette, but an actual receiver, disc player and speakers. Chances are the electronics are at least 20 years old, but the true pride is often in the speakers. Placement usually either involves a couple of L-brackets or, for the more adventurous, eyehooks and some length of chain. It can be problematic when the speakers are needed for an outdoor event away from the garage/workspace. I would not recommend taking your home speakers to the park gazebo.

Out of this madness comes Blumenstein Audio with what may be the most useful, multi-purpose and durable solution, the aptly named Thrashers. Blumenstein generously calls the finished look “industrial design.” In truth, the speakers look like something straight out of a Jeff Foxworthy special.

The review pair comes with an oriented-strandboard (aka chipboard) cabinet. Two cabinet upgrades are available: a fir plywood front or a complete fir plywood cabinet. Each cabinet measures 17 by 13 by 12 inches. The port and speaker jacks are mounted in the front panel below the 1-inch super tweeter, which is crossed over at about 10 kHz; an 8-inch Pioneer Bofu driver is also mounted in the front panel. With everything on just one side, there is less to worry about when inebriated friends decide to help move them about.

To make the review as real world as possible, I power the Thrashers with my 1980 Harman/Kardon 680i receiver, Magnavox DVD/CD player and 16-gauge speaker wire. I place the speakers on a shelf in my garage 6 feet apart and 5 feet off the floor. Much of the listening time transpires while I work on a home project, with plenty of contemplation and hopped adult beverages, and with the TV on mute during the World Cup. With their 92 dB rating, the Thrashers take precious little effort to play loud and clear, and they are designed to be manhandled, both physically and sonically.

The Thrashers sound like a quality budget set of nearly full-size speakers. Vocalists, whether Tom Petty, Melissa Etheridge, Roger Daltrey, or Rihanna, sound far more lifelike than if they were reproduced by the well-cared-for rack systems of yore. The crunchiness of vocals comes from the limitations of the recordings, not the Thrashers. Robert Plant’s eviscerating vocals during “Stairway to Heaven” are scary realistic. The front port helps deliver ample bass down to 45 Hz, even when placed against a wall.

One afternoon out of boredom, the teen neighbors bring over a mixed disc of hip-hop, rap and popular music. They listen to the first song and turn up the volume a couple of times. During the second track, they begin texting. Next thing I know, a car pulls up with three of their friends. The girls begin dancing to Rihanna, while the boys punch one another and act like bloodhounds. The spontaneous listening ends only when the neighbors are called to go to a ball game. The Thrashers are like the ultra nerds in high school who everybody ignores until test time and then everyone needs to sit near them in order to pass the class.

Upping the game with a Vista Audio i34 integrated tube amplifier makes the overall sound more sultry and sweet, and an SET amplifier would probably take it further, but why bother? Whatever the combination of factors, the Thrashers sound better than any $229 dollar speakers have a right to, hands down. For those few rare audio souls who have come across and rescued a tube amp awaiting the garbage truck, the Thrashers are the mates.

As luck would have it toward the end of the review period, I’m invited to a large picnic at a nearby park. Seizing the opportunity, I toss (well, not quite) the Thrashers and receiver in the back of my pickup and head for the park. Discovering the area doesn’t have any electrical outlets, I plug the Thrashers into my pickup with the speakers sitting on the tailgate, and soon the park is filled with music. Cranking up Frampton Comes Alive! brings out the air-guitar enthusiasts, and several people compliment me on the great sound system.

Sure, you could go to Goodwill and maybe find a pair of speakers that don’t suck for $50—but the odds of that happening are somewhat slim. Or you could get out the power tools, make a few trips to Home Depot and build your own pair. Hats off to you if you’ve got the fortitude for that exercise. I say send the folks at Blumenstein Audio a couple hundred bucks and break out the beer. Carry the Thrashers, slide them, dent them—it’s all about the sound and carefree portability, which these speakers offer in spades. Just a hint: Keep a pair of work gloves handy, as the Thrashers do shed splinters on occasion.

Publisher’s note: After auditioning the Thrashers with everything from an $88,000 pair of Pass Xs300s to my Sansui 771, I decided that I need them. Per Mr. Marcantonio’s suggestion, they are my new garage speakers. Rock on. —Jeff Dorgay

GoldenEar Technology Triton Seven Speakers

The shock of thunderous bass waves is what the GoldenEar Triton Seven speakers greet me with to start a surprising review experience. Put away your preconceived notions of what slim, budget mini-towers should sound like—these are the first such speakers that don’t prompt me to add a subwoofer, even just to see if any bass response is missing. Unless you’re trying to out-thump the teenage neighbor with the 15-inch woofers in the back of his hatchback, the Sevens provide as much bass as you could ever want from a $1,400 pair of speakers.

Thanks to their dual passive radiators, the Sevens go down to 29 Hz, which is plenty of low-frequency extension for most listeners. From the instrumental thunderclap in James Taylor’s “Gaia” and the cannons in Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” to Dire Straits’ “The Man’s Too Strong” and non-ear-bleeding hip-hop or techno dance music, these speakers easily provide the necessary weight to get the job done.

If imaging floats your boat, the Sevens flood the room with that characteristic—so much so that my small man cave (about 9 by 12 feet) isn’t quite large enough to let them breathe. In my 14-by-18-foot living room, the speakers thrive, with instrument placement that reminds me of much more expensive speakers. The individual percussion whacks of the Indigo Girls’ “Three Hits” rotate around the outside of each speaker, with the individual voices placed far left and right, and the magical harmony point placed well in front of the mini-towers.

Aerosmith’s classic “Dream On” is a stress-test song. Steven Tyler’s vocals can push many tweeters in the sub-$1,500 range into screechy crunchiness. Triton’s High-Velocity Folded-Ribbon (HVFR) tweeter keeps the high frequencies clear and dynamics strong. A testament to their driver design, the Sevens manage to keep even dense recordings well sorted.

Tech and Setup

Optimizing the Sevens takes very little effort. In my room, I achieve the best results using an equal triangular measurement, with the speakers toed-in directly to the listening position and placed four feet out from the wall. If you place the speakers too far apart, male vocals will hollow out and the center image will collapse. During setup, I suggest moving them apart a few inches at a time until you’ve gone too far, and then move them a touch closer.

With an 89 dB sensitivity rating at 8 ohms, the Sevens get jumping pretty easily. Though they thrive with the 150 watts per channel of my reference Simaudio Moon i-7 integrated, the 35-wpc Vista Audio i35 tube integrated still delivers plenty of punch though with a slightly softer presentation than the Sim. These speakers are truly amplifier-friendly, as they work equally well with class-D amps.

Standing just under 40 inches tall, 7.25 inches wide, and 10.5 inches deep, the Triton Sevens appear quite ordinary from a distance. Step up close and the first difference becomes apparent: A black grill sock topped with a shiny black plastic cap covers each speaker—no veneer or vinyl anywhere. Why the grill sock? It provides a sleek and uniform look and covers the dual passive 8-inch radiator bass drivers located near the base on either side panel. This old-school usage of the passive radiators comes from Golden Ear president Sandy Gross’s experience as cofounder of Polk Audio. The result is an impressively detailed bass response down to 29 Hz.

The two midrange drivers and the Heil-inspired HVFR tweeter are mounted in a D’Appolito mid-tweeter-mid array. Incorporating the passive radiators requires only a single third-order crossover set at 3 kHz. Other speakers I’ve reviewed with a Heil-type tweeter have a much lower crossover point, but 3 kHz works just fine in the Sevens. The speakers come with a simple but sturdy plastic base, and four spiked or rubber-tipped feet are provided, for those desiring such floor coupling.

Further Listening

Never one to shy away from testing a speaker’s limits, I play a multitude of symphonic recordings and discover that the Sevens will expose poorly recorded performances. Two versions of Gustav Holst’s The Planets aptly demonstrate this characteristic: One recording gives a muddy, undefined soundstage during the thunderous “Jupiter” movement, while the other recording is open and enveloping.

Through the Sevens, powerful vocals appear dead center and about a foot out in front of the speakers. Adele’s “Daydreamer” shows off her conversational singing style between the powerful moments, with the Sevens picking up her soft accent. On “Best for Last,” the second track of her debut album 19, there is a background chorus humming that I’ve never heard from similarly priced speakers—and the Sevens present it with ample clarity. When Adele lets loose with full-thrust vocals, these speakers don’t shrink; they stay faithful to the performance.

Getting timbre right in the listening sweet spot is one step, but getting it right off center is another level altogether. Even with the toe-in, I find reasonable timbrel accuracy in off-angle listening spots. Achieving faithful tonal character of unique vocalists is something I always look for, especially when it comes to James Taylor. Many speakers in the sub-$2,000 range either embellish his nasal sweetness or thin out his voice. The Sevens lay off the sugar just a bit, thus keeping his vocal character intact.

The Seven’s most stunning musical performance during my review comes from live small jazz ensembles. On Bill Frisell’s East/West [Live], all the characteristics mentioned above come together. The soundstage presented is a three-dimensional revelation—an audiophile nirvana experience, where the listener gets totally lost in the music. Every instrument has a place but at the same time comes from everywhere; it’s stereo reproduction at its best. For a $1,400 pair of speakers to so strongly recreate a live performance is a remarkable auditory feat.

Solo piano recordings are notorious for showing speaker flaws. The Sevens perform admirably here, producing a very natural-sounding piano. George Winston’s “Ike La Ladana” does show a bit of midrange congestion, but not as much as a pair of Totem Rainmakers, another pair of speakers in this price category with fine imaging. Other George Winston albums and songs don’t show the same level of congestion, though on a couple of occasions a slight hint can be detected.

For head bangers on a budget or limited in real estate, the Sevens will make you toss your hair with abandon. My ears fly the white flag of surrender numerous times at the 103 dB mark, while the speakers continue to provide a solid soundstage. The instrumental layering on “Stairway to Heaven” doesn’t muddy up the overall sound that the speakers present. Instead, the 5.25-inch midrange drivers create ample acoustical space without limiting the multiple instruments. Good speakers recreate the strength of individual instruments, and that is what the Sevens do consistently.

During my last weekend with the speakers, I hook them up to my 2.0 home theater setup and am not disappointed. Dialogue is clear, sound effects during car chase are well placed, and gunshots make me feel like I’m in the middle of the violence. Most importantly, I never need to reach for the remote to turn the volume up or down, as I neither strain nor feel sonically overwhelmed.

Final Tally

For speakers that do so many things well for just $1,400 a pair, one might ask what was sacrificed? The Triton Sevens don’t have the level of resolution of my reference Harbeth Compact 7ES3 speakers, but the extra 15 Hz on the bottom end earns some serious points, especially when the speakers are used in a home theater setup. The Sevens do the basics well and add in the treats of outstanding imaging and real, prodigious bass.

These are speakers that a family with myriad musical tastes can enjoy. Watch out competition: Sandy Gross has a winner in his lineup.

GoldenEar Technology Triton Seven Speakers

MSRP: $1,400 per pair

Penaudio Cenya Monitors

Cranking Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” to a level way beyond what I’d ever expect from a small pair of monitors causes me to redefine my mental short list for a final hi-fi system. While I routinely audition six-figure speakers (and enjoy every minute of it), the Cenya and its slightly more expensive sibling, the Cenya Signature, deliver so much music that I would happily retire with these Finnish beauties as destination speakers.

The Cenyas do everything but deliver the last octave of deep bass, and at $4,000 a pair, they leave you enough scratch to add your favorite subwoofer, should you require it. But in a small- to medium-sized room, you may not need the extra bass. These speakers are positively heavenly in my new small listening room (10 by 13 feet) powered by the Devialet 120. Penaudio speakers have always needed a little bit of juice to give their all, and the 120 watts per channel provided by the Devialet gets the job done, no matter what the musical faire. The opening bass drum beats from Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” are delivered solidly, without overhang. As the cymbals linger in the air and fade off into black, the sparkle remains potent, which leads me to believe that these little speakers move some serious air.

It’s worth noting that Devialet owners that are running the current firmware can now take advantage of their new S.A.M. (Speaker Active Matching) system, which offers phase alignment for a list of speakers, like the Cenya, custom tailored to the individual speaker.  S.A.M. also offers bass equalization/compensation in the DSP domain that extends the frequency response cleanly down to 25hz. This had just become available at the end of this review, so watch for a follow up when we’ve spent more seat time with it. The short story is that it works incredibly well. You’ll swear there is a subwoofer in the room!

My history with Penaudio goes way back to the Serenades that we reviewed in issue 4 and that ended up as my reference speakers for a couple years. I’ve always appreciated Penaudio founder Sami Pentilla’s ability to build speakers that combine understated good looks and natural tonality in a compact form. The tiny Cenya is no exception. It looks like a slice of the Serenade, with a 6-inch woofer and a 1.25-inch soft dome tweeter, and it is available in a wide variety of finishes.

This particular pair comes in the high-gloss white that was the rage at this year’s Munich High End show. Considering psychoacoustics, this may be the best color for these mini monitors, as it lets them disappear even further into my listening environment, which is painted Ralph Lauren Studio White. A knuckle rap demonstrates cabinet rigidity, which contributes to the speakers’ stellar bass response and freedom from cabinet-induced vibration.

Super Simple Setup

As with any high-quality pair of mini monitors, the Cenyas benefit from doing two things: placing them on massive stands and providing a solid coupling between the speaker and stand. Though not as attractive as the Cenyas deserve, a pair of 24-inch sand-filled Sound Anchor stands works perfectly, with a set of small Isonode feet ($19.95 for a set of 4; available from Bright Star Audio) providing an ideal mechanical interface.

The Cardas Clear Light speaker cables also work well with these speakers, but for those requiring a bit more zip and high-frequency extension, the Graditech speaker cables provide it. They prove a perfect match for the Conrad Johnson LP125sa power amplifier, while the Clear Light cables are a more balanced solution (for these ears, anyway) with the Devialet.

Final speaker placement takes about 15 minutes, with a bit of fine-tuning after the Cenyas have about two weeks of major break-in. Like all of the other Penaudio speakers we’ve auditioned, a good week’s worth of listening to dynamic music at moderate to high volume does the trick—though they do sound fabulous right out of the box.

Jah Wobble’s Japanese Dub leads the way into a long session of bass-heavy tracks that help define the low-frequency response of the Cenya2. The official specification is +/–3 dB from 45 to 28,000 Hz in an anechoic chamber, and thanks to a little bit of room gain, the Cenya 2s reproduce the 40 Hz test tone on my Stereophile Test CD with ease, though bass response falls off rapidly after this. For most musical material, this will rarely be an issue, considering the quality of the bass that the speakers produce. Again, this was all done without S.A.M. engaged on the Devialet.

A Nimble Performer

In a modest-sized room with first-class amplification, the Cenyas will spoil you. Thanks to their small front surface and high-quality SEAS tweeter, they throw an expansive soundstage that not only extends beyond the speaker boundaries but also past the wall boundaries.

When I revisit Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, it’s a pleasure to hear the nuance in his young voice and, even though the recording is only mediocre, the coherence provided by this high-quality two-way speaker makes it come to life. As with the previous Cenya iteration, the new Cenya exhibits a transparency much like an ESL. The Hammond organ at the beginning of “Kitty’s Back” remains in the air, slightly above the speakers, lingering in the room as though through my Quad 57s, but with more punch and dynamics.

The Cenyas excel at keeping the musical pace intact. The rapid-fire drum beats in Blamstrain’s “Dog Song” stay solidly anchored in the middle of some dreamy synth riffs, while the deep bass line fills the listening room without blurring the spacey presentation, until the volume is turned up well beyond a reasonable level. This is the only limitation of these petite Finns: They can only move so much air, and when pushed past their limit, they compress rapidly. However, I think anyone demoing a pair of Cenyas for the first time will be surprised at just how loud this level is.

Of course, the vocal performance of these speakers is beyond reproach. Those preferring more audiophile faire will be highly satisfied at the deftness with which the Cenyas project both male and female vocals. Whether you love Tom Waits or Shelby Lynne, the speakers deliver the goods.


With a sensitivity rating of 86 dB, the Cenyas work better with more power, though in my small room, even the 25-watt-per-channel 845 SET amplifiers at my disposal prove adequate, albeit not able to push the speakers as far as the 120-wpc Devialet can.

Regardless, the Cenyas are very tube friendly in a way that my Serenedes never were. The McIntosh MC275, PrimaLuna DiaLogue Monoblocks and the new C-J LP120sa vacuum-tube amplifiers all work well with the Cenyas, delivering great dynamics, extended HF response and good damping of the woofer cones without issue.

The Cenyas are equally versatile with solid-state amplification, from about 35 wpc on up, proving a good match with the 35-wpc Naim Qute2, the 50-wpc Rega Brio-R and the 60-wpc Pass Aleph 5—all reasonably priced yet high-performance small solid-state amplifiers.

Surprisingly, the Cenyas are transported into another world with the 300-wpc Burmester 911 MK3 and the similarly powered Pass Xs 300 monoblocks, though it is hardly likely that someone would spend $30,000 to $80,000 on amplification for a $4,000 pair of speakers—though, if you do, these little beauties are up to the task.

The $4,000 Question

If you are looking for maximum performance with minimum footprint, look no further than the Penaudio Cenyas. They will do justice to whatever ancillary components you have at your disposal and they produce way more music than you would expect from a speaker this diminutive in size. Highly recommended.

Penaudio Cenya monitors

MSRP: $4,000 per pair


Digital Source Devialet 120    Meridian Control 15    MacBook Pro
Analog Source Thorens TD-124    SME 3009 tonearm    Ortofon 2M Black cartridge
Amplification Devialet 120
Cable Cardas Clear

Burmester B10 Speakers

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to audition Burmester loudspeakers, you know they mate perfectly with the company’s electronics and that, together, they put forward a very dynamic, powerful presentation. And, as founder Dieter Burmester is a bass player in his spare time, his speakers are never lacking in low-frequency authority.

In a fairly good-sized room, pairing the hefty Burmester 911 amplifier (or the larger 909) with Burmester speakers makes for highly engaging listening. But for those of us wanting the Burmester experience in a smaller room, the B10s—which are only about 15 inches tall, 9 inches wide, and 11 inches deep—deliver just that. They fit on a pair of stands; I use sand-filled Sound Anchors in my modest 11-by-13-foot listening room.

This understated-looking pair of two-way speakers is something of a happy accident. Originally designed as personal reference monitors for Dieter’s studio, they became part of the product lineup and they make for an excellent match with Burmester’s smaller 101 integrated amplifier and 102 CD player, which we review here. With an 87-dB sensitivity and 4-ohm nominal sensitivity, the B10s are obviously geared towards Burmester amplification, but they work great in the context of any system, whether tube or solid state.

For initial break-in, I run the B10s for a few days with the Devialet 110 (now upgraded to 120 status) in my second listening room, merely swapping out the Stirling Broadcast 88-B8 speakers (also 87 dB) that have been in for review for some time. This could not have been a more night-and-day difference; it was like going from a mid-1980s Mercedes 300 turbo diesel (the Sterlings) to a current AMG C63 (the Burmesters). There’s more resolution and extension everywhere, and even though these are fairly small speakers, the signature Burmester low-end performance is there in spades.

The Burmester B10s have an MSRP of $9,000, without stands.

Initial Listening

Once settled in, my Devialet/Meridian combination goes out and in comes the Burmester 101/102 combination, which proves very interesting, as this amplifier is Burmester’s foray into class-D design—no doubt as a result of the company’s work on high-end automotive audio systems. For those already familiar with the Burmester house sound, (read: slightly warm for solid state), the 101 does not disappoint; it lacks the slight haziness and harshness normally associated with these designs.

Listening to Thomas Dolby’s “I Scare Myself,” I find that the B10s exhibit excellent pace, keeping the deep bass line firmly anchored in place, as the synthesizers float about the soundstage with plenty of width and depth. Interestingly, the B10s use a dome tweeter where the rest of the Burmester line uses a ribbon/AMT driver. Ribbons in general tend to elicit a polarized response from most music lovers, and reviewer bias admitted, it is not my favorite driver, so I find myself very drawn to the overall sound of the B10s, especially since I have a soft spot for well-designed two-way loudspeakers.

Setup is simple and straightforward. As with any compact high-performance monitor, a pair of rigid stands is a must in order to extract the best possible performance. Burmester does make its own stands, which are more attractive than my Sound Anchors, but the Sound Anchors are very dense stands and so they are a great match for the B10s. Putting the speakers on less-massive stands does, in fact, compromise bass extension and focus, so regardless of which way you go, don’t set these speakers on weak stands or you will be disappointed.

Seat Time

The more time spent with the B10s, the more comfortable I become. Expanding the musical palette reveals no shortcomings, with the only thing missing being the extremely low frequencies of large floorstanding speakers. Yet, taking advantage of the room gain in a small room, the B10s do not disappoint, even when playing tracks from Deadmau5, Pink Floyd and Mickey Hart. Though it might seem counterintuitive with a $9,000 pair of speakers, the B10s deliver more low-end heft with a larger amplifier—in this case, my reference Burmester 911 MK3, which has been in service for some time now.

Listening to the new Black Keys album Turn Blue is much freakier with the added power of the 911 driving the B10s. The fuzzy guitars come alive with more weight, bite and roundness, while the vocals seem more real and full of life. A similar experience is had with Pink Floyd’s classic album Wish You Were Here. The title track comes in with barely a whisper as the acoustic guitar spikes up, standing out clearly in its own acoustic space. The smaller 101 amplifier, though similar tonally to the 911, flattens the leading in and trailing off of sound ever so slightly, though it is still involving and something you wouldn’t notice if you didn’t happen to have a 911 hanging around.

As hinted at earlier, the B10s will work fine with vacuum-tube amplification, suggesting that they have a well-designed crossover network, though you can expect that a slightly softer sound will reflect what comes out. The 35-watt-per-channel Van Alstine Ultravalve renders a very mellow performance, per its character, while the 125-wpc Conrad Johnson LP120SA+ is much more authoritative and incredibly deep. While these comparisons offer different flavors than the Burmester amplification, the experiment is a ton of fun, turning my listening room into a fishbowl full of music—not necessarily real, but highly engaging.

Keeping It Real

The B10s rock with authority and image like crazy, but they do not present an overblown sense of perspective, preserving tone and timbre with acoustic instruments. The Jung Trio’s Dvorak Trio in F Minor Op. 65 quickly demonstrates how well these small monitors keep violin and piano sorted, especially the violin. This masterfully recorded piece is so clean that any hint of harshness in a system will be revealed instantly. The B10s pass this tough test with ease.

The subtle brushwork at the beginning of Thad Jones’ “April in Paris” is equally impressive. As Jones’ smooth horn gently glides into the mix, it’s easy to hear him move ever so slightly across the soundstage, and the B10s nail the subtle phrasing of this jazz master, delivering a very emotional experience.

Chrissie Hynde’s highly processed vibrato in the Pretenders’ self-titled debut is perfectly rendered through the B10s. Each of her breaths on the track “Private Life” comes through the mix with an exciting sense of immediacy. Shelby Lynne’s not bad either, so the audiophile whose taste leans more towards female vocalists will not be disappointed with these speakers.

Going through record after record, I find that the design and meticulous build quality that goes into the B10s (like that of every single Burmester product) is evident. These speakers may look understated and simple, but the musical result is fantastic. A perfect match for an all-Burmester system, the B10s will also mate fantastically well with a non-Burmester system. They may even pull you further into the world of Burmester.

Burmester B10 speakers

MSRP: $9,000 per pair (North American importer)


Digital sources Meridian Control 15    Burmester 102 CD Player
Amplification Devialet 120    Burmester 101    Burmester 011/911
Cable Cardas Clear

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

Morel Octave 6 Limited Floorstanding Speakers

Though I knew little about Morel before this review, after listening to its new Octave 6 Limited floorstanding speakers, the company now has my attention. Based in Israel, Morel builds car speakers, in-walls, and various standalone options, as well as its own drivers.  Morel has been a manufacturer of premier drivers for a number of major speaker companies for some time now, however while all of their drivers share core technologies, the ones utilized in their own systems are built from scratch and customized for that individual speaker.  Everything from crossover to the drivers is done in house, except for cabinetry.

The Octave 6 Limited speaker line, which is among Morel’s mid-tier hi-fi offerings and contains some trickle-down technology from the top speakers (mainly the Fat Lady flagship speaker), includes a bookshelf/stand-mounted model, a limited-edition floorstander with larger woofers and voice coil, finished in either black or white lacquer.

Design and Setup

I put the Octave 6 Limited floorstanders through their paces. They utilize a 1.1-inch soft dome tweeter, a 6-inch midrange unit with a 3-inch voice coil, and a single 9-inch side-firing subwoofer with a giagantic 5.1” voice coil and a hybrid carbon fibre/paper cone. All the drivers are covered with protective lotus grille, utilizing a special pattern to minimize reflections and resonance – a special tool is enclosed to carefully remove these grilles for maximum sonic effect. Though they are disparately placed, the drivers display fantastic sonic cohesion.

The box cabinet is modified with some curved edges and includes a rear port. The forward-firing tweeter is molded to the top and set slightly back to ensure proper time alignment with the midrange driver, which is set into a slight bulge extending from the otherwise straight cabinet. These floorstanders are rather small in stature, measuring 38 inches tall, 13.4 inches wide, and 7.3 inches deep; they weigh about 52 lbs each.

A double set of binding posts allow for bi-amping. For those using standard speaker wire, stamped and gold-plated jumpers connect the binding posts. In testing, I found that a set of Jena Labs jumpers sound better than the stock jumpers. The speakers also come with a set of spikes to couple them to the floor.

The binding post and driver placements remind me of the Audio Physic Virgos, which I had for several years. A new pair of the Virgos cost around $7,000, so I found myself very eager to hear what the $7,000 Morels could accomplish. As much as I loved the Virgos, the Octaves prove themselves a better choice for my taste.

After an hour of scooting the Octaves around my listening room—which is 17 feet deep and 20 feet wide, with a 10.5-foot ceiling—I find the ideal placement to be about 4 feet from the front wall with a slight toe-in, thereby twisting the side-firing woofers slightly toward the rear of the room.

Sound and Performance

My reference speakers, the Piega P-10s, are larger than the Octave and in their day, the Piegas cost twice as much as the Octaves, so it’s not a fair comparison, though the Octaves offer some similarities in terms of sonic signature. They reproduce a little less detail and ambience than the Piegas, though they absolutely hold their own, filling the room with wonderful music. The Octaves create the illusion of sitting a few rows back in an auditorium during a live performance. From that perspective, a bit of lost detail is natural.

Morel says the Octave’s frequency response covers the 20-Hz-to-20-kHz range of human hearing and extends to 22 kHz. The speakers offer a high level of neutrality, more so than the Virgos, which have a slightly warm character. Considering the Octaves modest cabinet size, the amount of low-frequency information they portray is impressive. The upper and mid-bass regions remain tuneful, tight, and well defined. Frequency-sweep tracks verify the speakers can produce very low frequencies, though they roll off below 40 Hz in my room, despite experimentation with speaker placement. The Octaves do work magic, but at some point the rules of physics take over. There’s only so much stomach-tingling oomph that a small enclosure can muster.

The Octaves don’t offer the level of bass tangibility I’m accustomed to with my reference speakers. For example, passages on Pitch Black’s “Ape to Angel” leave me longing for more heft. Still, I remain amazed at what the Octaves can produce, given sufficient amplifier power. The touch of low-bass shyness I experience may not be as apparent in a smaller room.

The Octaves do a great job of high-frequency extension without tipping toward an edge of stridency or etch. They deliver plenty of detail while maintaining the music’s natural sound: accurate male and female vocals; cymbals retain their shimmer; saxophones and clarinets are rendered with appropriate woodiness; and on good acoustic guitar recordings, it’s easy to discern the difference between nylon and metal strings.

Soundstage and Dimensionality

The Octave 6 Limited speakers have the ability to cast sound in all directions, while drawing no particular attention to the physical location of the speakers. Music drifts organically and effortlessly between and beyond the speaker boundaries, immersing the listener in sound. Everyone’s listening space provides different benefits and challenges. In my room, the perceived depth of the soundstage behind the speakers is not quite as dramatic as some speakers I have encountered. However, the left, right, and vertical sonic extension rivals that of some of the best speakers I’ve heard in this space.

The Chesky Records test disc illustrates how far the Octaves can extend a sonic image into the room. One track features David Chesky beating a tom drum while walking around an omnidirectional microphone; another utilizes a surround-sound processor to simulate the same activity. In both cases, the Octaves convincingly create the auditory illusion that Chesky is indeed walking a big circle around my listening space. Though my listening chair is against the back wall of my room, it’s as if David Chesky has somehow walked behind me. Many speakers do a good job approximating this illusion, but the Octaves do a fantastic job.

To Each Their Own

The Morel Octave 6 Limited floorstanders are marvelous speakers, especially considering the value they offer at a $7,000 per pair. Across objective audio metrics and subjective musical preferences, the Octaves excel.

Those with large listening rooms, those who crave every ambient nuance of a performance, or those who prefer bass-heavy rock and electronica may want to seek larger and more expensive speakers that can better deliver those characteristics. Those caveats aside, the capability of the Octaves across the audible spectrum is extremely good for speakers in this price range—and their ability to deliver three-dimensional imaging is indeed rare for this price. If that appeals to you, head to your local Morel dealer for a demo.

Morel Octave 6 Limited Floorstanding Speaker

MSRP: $7,000


Speakers Piega P-10
Digital Source Light Harmonic DaVinci DAC Audio Research CD3 Mk 2    HP Quad Core desktop with Windows 7 and JRiver Media Center 19
Analog Source SME 10 with 10 tonearm    Dynavector 17D3 cartridge
Preamplifer Coffman Labs G1-A
Amplifier Mark Levinson No. 335
Cables Jena Labs interconnects and Twin 15 speaker cable
Power Running Springs Audio Haley    RSA/Cardas Mongoose and Golden power cords
Accessories ASC Tube Traps    Cathedral Sound room-dampening panels    Mapleshade Samson racks    Coffman Labs footers

Dali Fazon Mikro 2 Speakers and Sub 1 Subwoofer

As the starship Enterprise explodes while I’m watching Star Trek: Inception, it’s clear that these miniscule satellite speakers from Dali deliver big sound. Working in concert with the tiny Fazon Sub 1, which utilizes a 6.5-inch long-throw driver, the speakers provide an equally solid bass response, as illustrated by the cannon shots in AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You).”

Finding a balance between performance and aesthetics when integrating great sound into your living room is always a challenge. Danish manufacturer Dali does a better job than most at combining a modern, understated look with exceptional performance. In the case of the Mikro 2s, the company manages to deliver such performance in a small package that easily fits anywhere.

With an enclosure built of machined aluminum—like the Fazon F5 speaker we reviewed in issue 43—the Mikro 2s feature a slightly curved shape that looks equally at home on a stand mount, on your desktop, or mounted directly to the wall. I use them in a 5.1-channel system powered by the Anthem MRX 510 multichannel receiver that has become my reference workhorse, with 125 watts per channel. Dali also makes the Fazon Mikro Vokal, which is identical to the Mikro 2 but oriented for horizontal use as a center-channel speaker. The Mikro 2s have an MSRP of $650 per pair; the Vokal is $325; and the Sub 1 is $595—which makes for a very reasonably priced multichannel setup. All the units are available in gloss white (as pictured) or gloss black.

Easily Mounted

Thanks to the integral bracket and supplied wall mount, TONE staffer Rob Johnson and I were able to mount the five Mikros in my living room with ease. To angle the rear speakers, we improvised by making wall mounts from a 4-inch long piece of PVC that we painted white, cut in half, and glued to the wall with Liquid Nails. The end result is a very subtle install.

Those wanting stands for the Mikros can purchase accessory stands from Dali, which may better suit your needs if you don’t have speaker cables running through your walls. The stands ($199 per pair) are also available in black or white.

Should you be in tighter quarters, the Mikros can also serve as a kick-ass desktop 2.1 or 5.1 system, enveloping you in sound in a way that headphones cannot. In my small (7-by-10-foot) home office, a pair of the Mikros and the sub underneath my desk delivers prodigious sound surrounding my 30-inch Apple Cinema Display.

Bottom line: These exquisitely crafted speakers work well anywhere, especially if you’re limited on space but want big sound.

Natural Sound

Dali speakers all share a natural voice, and the Mikros continue this tradition. A two-way design with a 4-inch wood-pulp woofer and 1-inch soft dome tweeter, the Mikro 2s have a somewhat low sensitivity of 84 dB, but this does not prove problematic in any situation I am able to create. The 125 watts per channel of the MRX 510 is easily able to drive these speakers to their maximum output of 104 dB, which is louder than I need in all but extreme conditions.

While Dali states that the speakers’ low-frequency response is 90 Hz, placing the Mikro 2s on the wall and fairly close to the room corners takes advantage of room gain, giving the impression of much more powerful bass response than the specs indicate. Using the same strategy with the Sub 1 and setting the crossover at about 80 Hz turns out to be perfect in my listening room. Those craving more LF output might want to consider adding a second Sub 1 in an adjacent corner, though I would resist the urge to get a lone larger subwoofer, as it may not integrate as seamlessly as the Sub 1 does.

Setting the Sub 1 up by ear takes very little time and even a rank beginner should be able to achieve excellent sub/sat integration. The ARC 1M room correction of the MRX 510 takes this to another level, and really helps the Dali speakers disappear completely in the room, both visually and sonically. The speakers are so unobtrusive that almost none of my recent guests even notice them—a major triumph in aesthetics.

Dynamic Range

Because of this natural voicing, the Mikro 2s are a perfect choice for anyone needing their home theater system to pull double duty as a family music system. Operating the receiver in simulated surround-sound mode and cranking the volume makes Cheap Trick’s version of “Day Tripper” (from Found All the Parts) sound convincingly live, with the applause folded into the mix adding to the presentation’s illusion of spaciousness.

Staying in a Beatles groove, tracking through the new copies of the Beatles’ U.S. albums, recently remastered by Greg Calbi, proves equally compelling. The Mikro 2s’ ability to disappear only heightens the ping-pong, ultra-stereo quality of these recordings.

Through these little speakers, Elvis Costello’s vocals in “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again,” (from the Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me soundtrack) is positively dreamy, capturing the mid-1960s Burt Bacharach feel perfectly, with Costello’s unique vocal styling fully intact. Tegan and Sara’s “I Know, I Know, I Know” is equally enjoyable, with both vocalists able to happily coexist in the soundstage yet with each of their voices being easily discernable.

I run the gamut of rock and jazz favorites, and nothing throws the diminutive Danes a curve they can’t navigate. The only place these speakers come up a bit short is when the program material switches to heavy electronica. You won’t be able to play your favorite Skrillex or Chemical Brothers tracks at full throttle—one can only expect a 6.5-inch woofer (from any manufacturer) to go so far. But everywhere else, when keeping sound levels prudent, the Fazon Mikro 2s always satisfy.

The available bass from the Sub 1 goes down solidly to about 35 Hz and, while this is not the ultimate in extension, it is well defined. Personally, I’d rather have detail in a small subwoofer than just boom, and this is another area where Dali excels. It’s easy to follow the bass groove in Thomas Dolby’s “Hot Sauce,” which exhibits plenty of weight. The acoustic bass line in Stanley Clarke’s In the Jazz Garden is full of overtones, perfectly capturing the speed at which this legendary player moves up and down the neck of his acoustic instrument.

Beauty, Value and Performance

The Dali Mikro 2 system offers all three of these virtues in equal measure. There will always be the audiophile who wants a traditional floorstanding or stand-mounted speaker, but for those wanting their music system to less obtrusively integrate into their surroundings, I suggest the Dali Mikro 2 system. This small system’s service to musical truth makes for a convincing home-theater experience. You will not be disappointed.

Fazon Mikro 2 speakers

$650 per pair

Fazon Mikro Vokal center-channel speaker


Fazon Sub 1 subwoofer





Wireworld Mini Eclipse 7 Speaker Cables

One sure way to start a war is to mention cable on any audiophile discussion forum.  Yes, there are many who are convinced that cables are all crapola, conjured by sorcerers who want to separate you from your hard-earned money, offering nothing in return.  At the same time, others live and die by their cable, often plugging in wire products costing multiple times their components’ due in search of a certain sound.

However, like most things, a little moderation goes a long way, and a perfect example is the Mini Eclipse 7 speaker cables from Wireworld to do just that.  At $500 a pair, they will not break the bank, and to let the cat out of the bag, they will allow more music to pass on even a modest system.

Reviewer bias revealed, I’ve always had a fondness for Wireworld products and even back when I was working for The Absolute Sound, I had great results with their speaker cables.  Owner David Salz doesn’t wear a fez or a gold lamé jacket; he’s an engineer with a methodical approach to everything he does, and his goal has always been to produce cable “that doesn’t damage the sound.” The new Mini Eclipse 7 not only succeeds brilliantly, it does so at a reasonable cost.

The Minis come nicely packaged in a black textured case and are available in standard lengths, either terminated with banana plugs or silver-plated spades, in the case of our review sample.  These cables are extremely easy to use, nowhere near as stiff as my old Equinox IIIs, and not as monstrous in diameter as many of today’s premium cables, so those not wanting garden hoses on the floor should be able to work with them.

Blinding me with science

The Minis use a series of flat 14-gauge OCC copper strands in a quad conductor DNA Helix design to minimize the electromagnetic loss present in a signal cable.  Combined with Wireworld’s Composilex dielectric material is indeed a very high-performance speaker cable.  Like a number of other manufacturers, Wireworld pays close attention to the grain structure and signal directionality in their bare cable, orienting it for the best sound.

Non-believers in the crowd, take note: I have heard this effect demonstrated successfully more than once, and when at another cable manufacturer’s facility, was able to identify the difference correctly 10 out of 10 times, so this is real.  It’s not major, but it is there, and paying attention to the fine details is what makes your system sound its best.

Just to be sure, the Minis were given 100 hours of break in time, via our vintage system consisting of a Sansui 771 receiver and a pair of JBL L26 speakers.  Even at this level, fresh out of the box, the Minis were a major improvement over the standard Radio Shack wire that was in place in this very inexpensive system. Instantly, the bass response tightened up, especially in the upper mid-bass region, and the overall graininess of this old gear was substantially diminished.

Systems large and small

After logging a few hours on the Minis, they spent a fair amount of time in a modest system consisting of a Rega Brio-R integrated amplifier and a pair of Vandersteen model 1Ci speakers (reviewed last issue) with digital music streamed from a Meridian MS200.  This particular system happens to use Home Depot 12-gauge extension cords as speaker cables, to good effect for a budget system.

Again, the sonic signature – or in this case, lack of one – is immediately apparent.  The violins at the beginning of Anja Garbarek’s “Her Room” from the Smiling and Waving album have a natural tone, and the soundstage, filled with natural and artificial sound effects, is definitely more open.  Regardless of recording, the overall soundstage presented by this system is bigger, allowing the speakers to easily give the illusion of disappearing.

I moved the cable into my house system, where they work in concert with the Devialet 110 and a pair of MartinLogan Aerius i speakers, music again supplied by a Meridian Control 15.  Components with more resolution make it even easier to discern the difference the cables make.  The driving, funky bass line in Betty Davis’s “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” now has more punch than before, and the Minis replace a set of more expensive speaker cables. I notice the same thing with Glenn Hughes’s rapid-fire bass playing on the self-titled Black Country Communion album.  Some cable, especially at this price point, tends to slow down the sound and introduce pace and timing issues – this is never the case with the Wireworld cable.

The vintage MartinLogan speakers are still very transparent (thanks to new panels from ML a few years ago) and easily reveal grain, yet the Minis help the system to reveal only the music, neither adding nor subtracting from the presentation.  Going back to an old audiophile classic, Michael Hedges’s Aerial Boundaries is chock full of plucky, acoustic guitar playing that can be easily muddled, yet never is through the Minis.  I notice the difference these cables make even more when I switch back to what I was using before.

Convinces the cable skeptic

These days $500 for a pair of premium speaker cables is a reasonable, but not major, investment; however the Wireworld Mini Eclipse 7 speaker cables proved a valid upgrade, even in a system only worth about $1,000.

As with any system, to reap the maximum benefit from any cable, make sure to optimize speaker placement and component setup before investing in anyone’s wire, so that you can more easily hear the difference.  And no, a $500 pair of speaker cables won’t make your $600 integrated amp sound like a pair of Pass Labs Class A monoblocks – that’s not being fair.

However, if you would like to take your current system to the next level, I highly suggest auditioning a pair of these at your local Wireworld dealer.   You’ll be impressed.  I’m impressed enough to buy the review pair for my Devialet system and to give these one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2014.

Blumenstein Audio Orcas and Dungeness

I’ve got a soft spot for single driver speakers.  While they don’t do everything right, the level of coherence and midrange purity exhibited by a great single driver speaker system is intoxicating.  The Orcas from Blumenstein Audio, combined with their Dungeness subwoofer are even more so, because now this setup has some serious bass, so I guess it’s not really a single driver system.

No, they still don’t play AC/DC like my Focal Maestro Utopias, but the Orcas/Dungeness combo will only set you back about $900, and that’s pretty cool.  Again, everything has its strengths and weaknesses.  The $1,500/pair KEF LS-50s are imaging masters, the $1,149/pair Vandersteen 1Cs (reviewed this issue) are incredibly musical all-rounders, and the Orcas are masters of tone – and isn’t that just fitting?

As with any great single driver speaker, the Orcas have an extremely wide dispersion characteristic, so they are not as position critical, from either speaker or listening chair placement, to get a full-bodied sound with a big soundstage.  And thanks to the combination of a wooden port and strategically braced cabinet with no sound deadening material, the Orcas don’t waste mechanical energy converting the signal to music.

Though a fairly young guy, designer Clark Blumenstein brings serious chops to the table. Formerly working with Cain and Cain loudspeakers, he has also spent time in Japan, apprenticing with Hal Teramoto, master driver maker at Feastrex in the summer of 2008.  One listen to the Orcas and you know he’s absorbed a lot from this experience.

Not just for the desktop

While these speakers are absolutely sublime as the anchors to a spellbinding desktop system, they can fill a decently sized room with sound, as Clark and Molly Blumenstein found out when they delivered the Orcas right after the Consumer Electronics Show early this January.

As they have an 89dB sensitivity rating, and possessing no crossover, you might be thinking “perfect candidates for a great SET amplifier.”  And you might be right.  We’ve had great results with our 845 monoblocks, and even though they are not SET, the 20wpc push-pull 300B amplifier from Nagra.

No one was more surprised than yours truly, when we heard a major difference going from the 20 watt tube amplifiers to the enormous Pass Xs300 monoblocks.  Yes, we were crazy, hooking up an $84,000 pair of solid state monoblocks to the diminutive Orcas, barely bigger than the power meters on the Xs300s, yet it worked.  Not only did the soundstage explode in all three directions, these little speakers distinctively revealed the differences in amplification handily.  Pretty damn impressive for a $500 pair of speakers.

Yet as cool as the Orcas are, they still sound a little, well, small without the matching subwoofer.  And for the extra $400, it is a must-purchase, taking these speakers from intriguing to serious.  Its six-inch driver in a small ported cabinet is small but very mighty, reminiscent of the powered woofer that Spica used to make.  Featuring adjustments for crossover frequency and output level, the Dungeness can be connected via line level outputs or directly to the speaker outputs, in a similar manner to REL subwoofers.  We used speaker level for two reasons – it was easy and with many people using these speakers in a modest system, and possibly not having access to an extra pair of variable outputs, this will most likely be the more common way these speakers will be used.  Five minutes’ worth of tweaking and the sub/sat balance was set perfectly.  Bottom line – these are incredibly easy speakers to set up, another bonus.

In the main listening room, alongside the mighty Focals, these little wonders proved intriguing, filling the room with aplomb. Recordings more towards the sparse side really make these speakers come alive.  Paul Weller’s self-titled album proved particularly groovy. With no crossover to introduce distortion or time/phase errors, the vocal purity is tough to beat.  And while these small speakers can only move so much air, at modest volumes they are eerily realistic.

Moving the Orcas out of my 16 x 25 foot main listening room into the 10 x 13 foot room in my house is much better.  Putting the sub close to the corner of the room for maximum bass reinforcement and bringing the speakers about four feet out in the room (much like I would with a pair of Rogers LS3/5As)  provides as nearly an immersive experience as listening on the desktop.  These speakers are absolutely wonderful in a small room.

However, the desktop is pretty cool

With the Orcas on the desktop between a computer monitor and the Dungeness tucked well under the desk, out of sight, it’s easy to forget that there is even a sub in the system, it integrates so well.  Listening to these little speakers extremely near field, the soundstage is encapsulating – sorry, headphones just don’t do this.

Playing to their strengths, I run through a medley of vocal-heavy tracks.  CSN’s “Helplessly Hoping” is magnificent, with all three vocalists clearly delineated, floating in front of my head – totally trippy.  Crowded House’s “Whispers and Moans” is equally lush, with the speakers disappearing in a three-dimensional presentation that is totally stealthy.

Though large scale rock is not the Orcas’ true strength, they handle AC/DC well at modest volume, close up.  “For Those About to Rock” comes through loud and clear, with good distinction between Angus Young on lead guitar and brother Malcolm on rhythm guitar, providing the necessary bite and texture. Lee Ving’s “Wife Is Calling” has the necessary grit, but pushing this too far reveals the limitations of these diminutive speakers – the point is reached where the soundstage just collapses and becomes one-dimensional.  Back off just a tad from this point and it’s all good.

A great combination

While there are a number of choices in this price range, this combination from Blumenstein Audio is fantastic, doing so many things incredibly well.  If you’re looking for a small speaker system that not only plays way bigger than its size suggests, but one that truly captures the tonal richness locked away in your favorite recordings, you need to give these a listen.  And if you’re a tube/SET listener, all the better.

Paradigm Monitor 9 Home Theater Speakers + Anthem MRX 510 A/V Receiver

Paradigm and Anthem both produce quality audio equipment at reasonable prices—Anthem on the component side and Paradigm on the speaker side. The two sister companies (to which MartinLogan is also a sister company) are based in Ontario, Canada, and their complementary product lines allow buyers to piece together a home-theater system with speakers and componentry that pair well together.

Paradigm’s Monitor speaker series are the company’s entry-level models, but they are far from “low end.” The 5.1-channel system in for review includes Monitor 9 floorstanding front speakers ($599 each), Monitor Surround 3 ($399 each) and Center 3 ($599), and a Monitor SUB 10 subwoofer ($849). The floorstanders feature a 1-inch fluid-cooled tweeter, a 5.5-inch midrange driver, and two 5.5-inch woofers. They measure a modest 40 inches tall, nearly 7 inches wide, and 10.5 inches deep, and they weigh 42 pounds apiece. They are available with black or cherry finishes.

The Monitor Surround 3 and Center 3 pair sonically and visually with the main speakers. On the Center 3, which weighs 28.5, a 6.5-inch woofer flanks either side of the stacked tweeter and 4.5-inch midrange. The surround speakers feature a bi-directional driver configuration, with the drivers facing about 90 degrees apart for maximum sound dispersion. With one speaker in each rear corner of the room, sound envelops the listener. Finally, we have Paradigm’s SUB 10 powered sub. Somehow, “point one” is not an adequate descriptor given the sonic heft of this unit, even though its physical dimensions are deceptively small: roughly 13 x 11 x 13 inches, with a reasonable weight of 30 pounds.

A Beautiful Friendship

Anthem’s MRX 510 receiver proves an ideal match for the Paradigms. While we don’t use its 7.1-channel capability, we certainly make full use of its 100 watts per channel of power for the 5.1-channel system. The MRX 510, which weighs 30 pounds and comes in a subdued black, can be configured for bi-amplification to give more juice to the front speakers if desired. With seven HDMI inputs (plus one on the front), the receiver will allow simultaneous connectivity of just about as many digital sources you can round up. The two HDMI video outputs render a wonderful picture. Other connection options include composite and component video inputs, two coaxial and three optical audio inputs, and five standard RCA audio outputs—but definitely use the HDMI inputs and outputs wherever possible for the best results. The sound and picture will benefit significantly.

The Anthem’s remote is straightforward for movie watching. Combined with the on-screen interface, it’s also quite helpful during the setup process. If you have a little experience, you’ll find the system easy enough to set up without the manual. If this is your first home-theater setup, the manual and step-by-step instructions will be your best friend for the afternoon.

Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.

One of my favorite features of the system is the wireless subwoofer. Older systems require a long wire connecting the digital processor to the sub that is an eyesore at best and a stumbling hazard at worst. It’s nice having the option of placing the sub behind the sofa where it’s out of sight, and where it also offers a tangible rumble to the listening seat.

The receiver also offers built-in room correcting for sound. It comes with a microphone kit so the system can make automatic corrections for the best sound in the listening room, and it comes with a software CD for Windows. But as my Windows 8.1 PC doesn’t have a disc drive, I have to borrow a computer and transfer the software and drivers to a thumb drive. (Or you can just download everything from the Anthem website.) Connecting the microphone to its stand and then to the PC (via the included USB cable) is easy, and a wired connection to the receiver is not necessary if you first connect the receiver to your local network. The setup wizard guides you through the process and, after several microphone placements, the system gets a good picture of room acoustics and optimizes the sound to our 18-foot-deep, 11-foot-wide listening space.

On with the Show

The opening scenes of James Bond films always dazzle the viewer with action sequences, and Quantum of Solace on Blu-ray does not disappoint. The sounds of car chases, machine guns, and explosions complement the visuals wonderfully. The shattering of a windshield during a particularly nasty car collision surprises me with the subtle tinkle of glass raining down on metal and concrete. It’s a level of detail and delicacy that I hadn’t been expecting.

The Talking Heads’ concert video of Stop Making Sense begins with punch despite the striped-down opening track featuring David Byrne’s acoustic-guitar rendition of “Psycho Killer.” While the guitar strums have a high degree of authenticity, it’s the drum machine that makes the biggest impression through this system. Especially with the subwoofer behind the sofa, the synthetic punches are tight, tuneful, and deep—even the sofa cushions resonate with the music. This setup’s bass will never be accused of shyness, but of course, users can adjust the bass response to their liking. During the band’s performance of “Slippery People,” the integration of guitars, percussion, electric bass, background vocals, and synthesized notes never leaves the listener wanting.

When listening to music through the system, you can choose a simpler stereo portrayal or let the Anthem process the two-channel sound into a 5.1 configuration. While non-5.1-mastered source material doesn’t gain a surround effect, a few settings allow the simulation of a concert venue. The full-room feel of music is great for a party. The event host can reduce the volume of music to facilitate conversation among guests, yet make the music audible in all corners of the room. In stereo mode, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s Blues at Sunrise retain solid sonic imaging across the width of the perceived stage, with layering in the distance.

While more expensive stereo or home-theater equipment may offer greater realism and detail, the price-to-performance ratio of this whole system is exceptional. The Anthem proves a great complement to the Paradigms, providing plenty of punch and sonic synergy so that no particular frequency range stands out in the mix. The speakers present music well, with good high-frequency extension and without any strident sting, making it easy to settle in for a long listening session.

“Go ahead, make my day.”

While $5,000 is certainly not chump change, in the world of hi-fi that investment often only gets you one stereo component. Alternately, that same money can provide a complete home-theater setup that offers great quality, performance, and value. For those seeking the ultimate in resolution and transparency, a different solution may fit the bill, but it will cost significantly more. For those seeking a single home audio/video solution, this Anthem/Paradigm combo gets you the best of both worlds: a solid two-channel setup and a 5.1 surround-sound system—just add audio and video sources. Plus, with unobtrusive looks and the ability to hide the subwoofer, you’ll forget the system is even in the room so you can get lost in the depths of a movie.

Additional Listening

By Jeff Dorgay

Though I’m not a home-theater aficionado by any stretch of the imagination, the winters here in the Pacific Northwest make for a lot of movie time, so I’ve been wanting to investigate a more turnkey situation for our readers, some of whom keep asking the same question: “I’ve got about five grand to spend for everything. Can I get a killer home-theater system for that much?”

Yes you can. At the numerous tradeshows I’ve attended around the world, Paradigm and Anthem always have the most impressive displays with systems offering performance on a level I’d expect from gear with much, much bigger price tags. The system you see here is no exception. I’d pay $1,600 just for the room-correction portion of the MRX 510, and you get seven channels of amplification and a video processor thrown in! My living room has dreadful sonic properties: hardwood floors, wood-plank ceiling, and a leather couch and chair, along with a big glass coffee table. But 20 minutes of measurements with the ARC (Anthem Room Correction) technology has the whole system rocking with movies and music. Fantastic!

The Paradigm speakers are easy to place, and thanks to the ARC, you don’t have to be quite as fussy as you would without it. And did I mention that this setup moves some major air? Explosions and car chases are awesome, with plenty of heft. But even when watching my favorite episodes of Ren and Stimpy, the little bits of classical music playing in the background still float delicately around the listening space.

As a home-theater neophyte, I appreciate Anthem’s great manual and ease of setup. You probably won’t have to hire the geek squad to hook this baby up, and all of the on-screen menus are very logical, as well. In short, this is the perfect setup for someone wanting great sound on a modest budget. Best of all, because Anthem and Paradigm are sister companies, so you know everything will work well together.

Anthem MRX 510 A/V receiver


Paradigm Monitor 9 floorstanding speakers

$599 each

Monitor Surround 3 S.7 speakers

$399 each

Monitor Center 3 S.7 speakers


Monitor SUB 10 subwoofer


SoundCast OutCast Portable Indoor/Outdoor Speaker System

Is it a futuristic beer keg?  A spare droid from Star Wars?  A water conditioner?  While it does look futuristic, this curious device is available today from your local SoundCast dealer—and it’s one of the most interesting portable music systems we’ve seen.

The OutCast is a single 26-inch tall cylinder with a slight taper in the midsection.  The control panel is located on the top of the device.  It lets users operate an iPod or iPhone, as well as iTunes, Pandora, and Rhapsody.  The easy-grip handle, also on the top, has plenty of room for those with large hands, while the sealed function buttons should be impervious to prying hands and intoxicated neighbors.

Within the casing are four sections.  The uppermost section holds the receiver unit and a 100-watt Class-D amplifier.  The middle section contains four 3-inch drivers aligned in a right-left-right-left pattern that creates a 360-degree stereo output.  The bottom section features a sealed chamber holding the 8-inch IMPP woofer, which, with its down-firing placement, allows for even bass dispersion.  The bottom section has ports for the woofer and ambient blue lights, and also serves as a sturdy base.  The OutCast’s heavy-duty design and external material limits exposure to the elements, while still letting the music be heard.

Setting up the OutCast and installing its rechargeable nickel-metal hydride battery takes about five minutes, if you take the 90 seconds required to read the manual.  Both the audio-input jack for non-iPod MP3 players and the power-cord socket are covered by a flexible but tight-sealing rubber gasket.  The OutCast offers three 2.4-gHz channels, which are manually switchable, to prevent interference with other wireless devices.

A Perfect Partner

Placement of the OutCast is key to its performance.  Getting the unit away from anything within at least five or six feet is critical for stereo performance.  Then, once you’ve charged it overnight, you’re ready to rock.

Combining the iCast dock/transmitter (a $100 option) with an iPod Classic, the Outcast fills most backyards with quality-sounding music.  Sell that boom box at your next yard sale, because the Outcast has serious low-end grunt.  Its midrange punchiness combined with omnidirectional ambience redefines outdoor hi-fi.  Blasting Adele’s 21, the OutCast easily carries her vocals to the end of my backyard, yet it wasn’t so loud as to send the neighbors into fits of rage.

The conveniently placed handle makes light work of carrying the 25-pound OutCast around the yard or to a neighbor’s house.  And it’s equally at home indoors as it is outdoors.

Better than a Rock

Unlike those outdoor speakers that look like rocks (but do not rock when called upon), both the OutCast and smaller OutCast Jr. (which starts at $600) deliver the goods, no matter what the volume.  This is an all-purpose portable player with serious capability.  Whether I was playing John Mellencamp or AC/DC, the sound was full and clear.  At a recent outing, a few guests complimented the sound quality and wondered where the wires were—one of the OutCast’s most-noticeable perks.

The device claims a 300-foot range between it and the iCast wireless dock.  It was still playing solidly at the edge of my 200-foot yard, but does drop off somewhat around corners.  For best results, you’ll want to keep it within line of sight.  Like a tuner car from The Fast and the Furious, the OutCast features blue mood lighting to increase its sci-fi feel.

Don’t be surprised if taking the OutCast or Outcast Jr. to your next party makes you the hit of the neighborhood.

SoundCast OutCast Portable Indoor/Outdoor Speaker System

MSRP: Starting at $900

Dynaudio Confidence C1 II

Blasting Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control,” (the 12-inch version), I once again forget that the Dynaudio Confidence C1 II speakers are small in stature, because these stand-mount speakers move serious air.  With a claimed LF spec of 45 Hz, they practically defy physics for a speaker this size.  The Burmester 911 mk. 3 amplifier in room two produces 350 watts per channel into four ohms and proves a perfect match for the C1s, which have a sensitivity of 85 dB/1 watt.  Powered thusly, the speakers never run out of headroom, making for an enormous soundstage in my second sound room (13 by 16 feet).

I keep the volume level high as Bowie’s “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” tests the speakers’ ability to deliver a coherent rendition of this dense mix, which combines a deep, driving synth-bass line with dissonant keyboard lines and layer upon layer of sound, while Bowie’s lead vocals remain anchored well out in front of a gigantic ball of sound.  This track is tough for $50,000 floorstanding speakers to handle at this volume, but the C1s ace yet another torture test.  Now it’s time for some Iggy Pop.

While the woofer and tweeter of the C1 look identical to the components used in the floorstanding C4, Michael Manousselis at Dynaudio makes it clear that “the Confidence models all feature the Esotar2 driver platform, but each model has its own unique drivers with optimized parameters.  While very similar overall, each speaker is indeed different.”  The C1 is the perfect speaker for the audiophile wanting extremely high performance in a compact space, but it also carries itself well in a big room:  A visit to Simaudio in Montreal earlier this year reveals the C1s playing in Sim’s main sound room (almost 22 by 30 feet) and filling it nicely, with LF output that had me looking for a subwoofer.

A True Destination Speaker

The C1s are easier to drive than their 85-dB sensitivity spec suggests.  Even the 10-watt per-channel First Watt SIT-2 power amp drives them without trouble.  This is also great news for vacuum-tube lovers.  The C1s are tube friendly, and I must admit to being in sonic heaven when coupling the C1s to the KR Audio Kronzilla dual monoblock tube amplifier.  This 50-watt SET amplifier has incredible bass heft with the delicacy of a 300B amplifier, but that extra 40 watts per channel makes for spectacular dynamic swings impossible to accomplish with a low-power SET.

This is an excellent long-term speaker to build a system around, and it only gets better as you upgrade the rest of your source components.  The C1s deliver good sound with modest amplification and cost-is-no-object components, or anything in between.  Their level of resolution makes it easy to distinguish nuances between five-figure amplifiers, but they still sound fine connected to a vintage Harman/Kardon Citation amplifier.

See-Through Sound

The top hallmarks of a two-way speaker and its associated simplicity are transparency and freedom from driver interaction.  Taking advantage of a gentle, 6dB/octave crossover slope, the C1 achieves a level of coherence reminding me of the Quad 57s sitting here for comparison.

The C1s disappear instantly, painting an enormous wall of sound that belies their size.  Cueing up Patti Smith’s “Space Monkey,” the Farfisa organ pulses in and out of the track, almost breathing in the room as if you can hear the speaker cabinet rocking back and forth about to tip over on stage.  A similar rendition of depth is achieved at the beginning of Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song.”  The harmonica at the beginning of the tune sounds miles in the distance, with Lynott’s voice staying anchored as the lead vocals take center stage and the rest of the song builds.

Putting the pedal down with Genghis Tron’s album Board Up The House proves these speakers can play loud, provided you have enough clean power behind them.  Romping through a playlist heavily populated by Slayer, Mastodon and Van Halen underscores the ability of the C1 to play heavy tracks without overhang or fatigue.  This is a speaker that can keep up with whatever you throw at it.  But the low-level resolution is what makes the C1 so special—this speaker is dynamic in a way that no panel ever could be.  During the first guitar break in Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker,” you can hear the slight hum of Jimmy Page’s amplifier stack right before he goes back to maximum volume.  Twenty minutes rocking out with these and you’ll drop your Magnepans off at the nearest Goodwill on your lunch hour.

The crossover point between woofer and tweeter is 1,800 Hz, but the drivers are so well integrated that there are no anomalies in the critical vocal range.  Male and female vocals are both reproduced with ease.  Johnny Cash’s voice has the right amount of weight and grit to sound convincing, and the C1s equally represent the subtle nuances of the female voice.  Listening to the eponymous album from Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway via 24-bit/192-kHz download is an exquisite experience—the C1s keep both vocalists properly sorted.  And Ella is just heavenly.

Multiple Personalities

While the C1s will perform admirably with small amplifiers, prepare for a completely different experience if you have a large, high-current power amplifier at your disposal.  The character of these speakers changes, now having more reach and control in the last octave.  Concentrating on music with a lot of LF output, I never really felt like these speakers needed augmentation at the low end of the frequency spectrum.  The famous heartbeat that opens Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon rumbles the room with authority.

Even when delivering large-scale orchestral music, the small Dynaudios thoroughly convince, especially with the Simaudio 880M monoblocks that just arrived for review. Again, power goes a long way with these speakers.

Behind (and Beneath) the Grille

The C1s have an interesting shape.  The main enclosure—a slim design only 6 inches wide, 14 inches deep and 15 inches high—is bonded to a front panel extending beyond the enclosure boundaries.  Removing the grille reveals the 6.6-inch woofer mounted just over the 1.1-inch Esotar2 soft-dome tweeter.  Using the speakers sans grill also reveals optimum performance.  The grille does not hamper things much, but the nuanced imaging suffers slightly with the grilles on.  Besides, these speakers look much more like sculpture with the grilles removed, so why leave them on?

My review pair came with the $450-per-pair Stand4 stands, which simply bolt into the bottom of the speaker cabinets.  This removes all the guesswork that can surround selecting the appropriate stand—the provided ones minimize stand interference and provide ideal playback height.  Stylish and massive, the stands work well, though I am informed that Dynaudio will soon replace them with the new Stand6 models, which come with a slight price increase to $500 per pair.  Because of the slim form factor of the speakers, I suggest using the Dynaudio stands and leaving it at that.  They are elegant, they complement the speakers perfectly and they have sufficient mass to do their job properly.

In terms of the speakers’ aesthetic, the standard maple finish just seems more Danish to me (and suits my personal preferences), but standard finishes also includes rosewood, cherry wood and black ash.  Black or white gloss and clear gloss lacquer are also available for an additional $800 per pair.

The Signature version of these speakers, at $8,500 per pair, is slightly more expensive than the standard edition.  With the Signature speakers, upgraded finishes come standard and include two extra choices that are exclusive to the Signature model:  Bird’s-eye maple, stained in either a dark-brown Mocca or dark-red Bordeaux finish with clear-gloss lacquer.  An additional bonus to the Signature model is a 10-year warranty, where the standard version has a 5-year warranty.

The Standard and Signature models share exactly the same drivers and crossover components, so they do sound the same.

I’m Keeping ’Em!

The official listening sessions end as they began, playing heavy music louder than I should.  (i.e. Grinderman’s “Evil” at equally wicked volumes.)  The combination of the C1s and the Burmester 911 is too much fun to keep the volume or choice of music at civil levels.  As I repeatedly push these compact speakers to the edge of their performance envelope, they continue to take everything I can throw at them with ease—so I happily wrote Dynaudio a check for the Confidence C1 IIs, which will be the reference speaker in room two going forward.  Their combination of wide-frequency response, natural tonality and high resolution makes them a perfect fit for a top-quality audio system.

The Dynaudio Confidence C1 II

MSRP:  $7,700 – $8,500 (stands additional)


Analog Source AMG V-12 turntable    Clearaudio Goldfinger
Digital Source dCS Paganini stack    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Preamplifier Burmester 011
Power Amplifier Burmester 911 mk. 3
Phonostage Simaudio Moon 810LP
Cable Audioquest Sky
Power Audience AR6Tss
Accessories Furutech DeMag and DeStat    Audio Desk Systeme RCM    GIK room treatments

Aperion Audio Verus Grand Bookshelf Speakers

Aperion Audio in Portland has a well-deserved reputation selling speakers directly to the end user through its website, offering speakers with solid designs and fine cabinetry.  The quality of its products paired with terrific customer service has earned the company a loyal following.

Its latest Verus Grand series speaker (priced at $598 per pair) is the bookshelf version of the company’s Verus Grand Tower speaker.  The compact speaker features a fresh design, beginning with a tapered cabinet and full-face front flange.  Its all-new ASR soft dome tweeter looks a bit funky, with its vertical bar, but it is a smooth performer.  Aperion pairs the tweeter with a 5.25-inch woven-Kevlar driver.  The braced fiberboard cabinet, available in cherry or gloss piano black veneers, is 13 inches tall, 7.5 inches wide and 9 inches deep, and has a port at the rear.  The front grilles are held in place by magnets, making for a clean front face that looks just as good with the grilles removed.

Setup is quick and easy:  Simply place the speakers 6 feet apart, 2 feet from the back wall and about 9 feet from the listening chair.  They are slightly stiff out of the box, but after a few days of nonstop play at modest level, the speakers reveal their true sound.  Eschewing toe-in placement, the Verus Grands work perfectly well positioned straight on.

Smooth Operators

Exploring Rita Wilson’s (yes, Tom Hanks’ wife) cover of  “Wichita Lineman,” the Verus Grand Bookshelf speakers represent the piano with a slightly mellow tone that exhibits a hint of sparkle.  The speakers convincingly reproduced the decay of each note during the last 30 seconds of the traffic, with Wilson’s voice never becoming shrill—high performance indeed for speakers at this price point.

These small speakers easily create a large soundstage, placing the keyboard in the opening track of Bonnie Raitt’s latest album, Slipstream, outside the left speaker, while Raitt’s lead guitar stays anchored low and inside the right speaker.  Tonal balance is the key, with Raitt’s sultry vocals never being overshadowed by the solid bass response these speakers provide, exceeding what you might expect of a LF spec of 59 Hz.  The hint of breathiness shown on “Take My Love With You,” a highly pleasing and an unexpected treat, reveals more resolution than the norm for a $600 pair of speakers.

An Easy Test-Drive

The Verus Grand Bookshelf speakers work well with tube, solid state or Class-D amplification; however, combining them with an EL34-based tube amplifier adds a bit of extra jump when listening to tracks like Brian Setzer’s “Dirty Boogie.”  His big-band orchestra fills the listening room with plenty of front-to-back depth.

Bill Frisell’s classic album Good Dog, Happy Man shows off the ability of these speakers to reproduce midrange and upper bass texture, with the various cello arrangements readily present here.  On the other hand, the signature baritone vocals of Crash Test Dummies’ front man Brad Roberts fall a bit short on “Superman” and “Mmmmm.”  But to Aperion’s credit, the company makes quality the priority with these speakers, rather than inducing a mid-bass hump to give the false impression of bass.  As a result, the critical mid-band is much clearer.

For those also using these speakers in a home theater setup, Aperion includes mounting brackets, which get the speakers up and out of the way.  Watching the The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the dialogue and city noise stay separated from the music in the sound track, with the music clear and enveloping.  It’s easy to take an Aperion system from a two-channel setup up to a full 5.1-channel system—simply add another pair of Verus Grands for surrounds, a Verus Forte center-channel speaker ($350 each) and one of Aperion’s Bravus powered subwoofers (priced from $349 to $899 apiece).

Aperion backs all of its speakers with a 10-year warranty, 30-day trial, and free shipping both ways, making the Verus Grand Bookshelf speakers an easy choice for an in-home audition.

Aperion Audio Verus Grand Bookshelf Speakers

MSRP: $598 per pair

Totem Acoustic Mani-2 Signature Speakers

If you believe that it’s possible for good things to come in small packages, then mini-monitors are right up your alley.  These little fellas warm the hearts and ears of space-constrained audiophiles everywhere.  Besides having room-friendly sizes, mini-monitors simply disappear once you toss in decent amplifiers, cables and stands.  Montreal’s Totem Acoustics has been building great compact loudspeakers for two decades.  CEO Vince Bruzzese seems to have applied Native American spirits, or some such supernatural force, to his speakers, which should not come as a surprise to the Totem true believers who have always known that Bruzzese and company were on to something.  I bought my first-edition Mani-2s in 1996 and they have graced my smaller listening room ever since.  More than a decade later, Totem has completely rethought this speaker, with the new Signature version.

House Spirits

The exteriors of the Sigs resemble those of their predecessors, but these speakers are all new on the inside, from internal bracing to crossovers and drivers.  There are two new distinctive aesthetic features: a little blue dot above the tweeter and a plaque on the rear.  Similar to the original Mani-2s, these are 4-ohm speakers that measure 16.4 inches tall, 8.5 inches wide and 12 inches deep, and they weigh 23 pounds apiece.

Each speaker features a 1-inch aluminum tweeter and two 6.5-inch woofers in an Isobarik formation—meaning that one driver faces into the cabinet and the other faces the outside world.  Each rear panel is ported and has two sets of terminals for bi-wiring.  Totem offers an optional grille, but the company openly prefers that you listen to the Sigs in their birthday suits.

After easing the Blu Tack off of my Mani-2 originals, I place the new speakers on the same lead-filled Target stands.  My room dimensions being on the small side (15 by 10 by 8 feet), I locate the speakers 3 feet from the short wall and 2 feet from the sidewalls, with 5 feet of space between each speaker.  My listening distance was 8 feet.  As the sensitivity of the Sigs is relatively low (85 dB), Totem recommends amplifiers for them that can crank out at least 40 watts per channel.  Advice notwithstanding, I have zero trouble driving them to satisfactorily clean listening levels with two different integrated amps, rated at 30 and 35 watts.

Man, Oh Mani-2

Totem suggests a minimum 200-hour break-in period and I willingly comply.  Two relatively low-powered integrated amplifiers, the PrimaLuna Premium Prologue (35 wpc) and the Pass Labs INT-30A (30 wpc) provide the juice.  A PS Audio PerfectWave Transport with MKII DAC and a Logitech Squeezebox Touch, armed with a USB drive, serve up the music.  Since extended low bass was an original Mani-2 “calling card,” I go straight to Patricia Barber’s “Constantinople” from Modern Cool (Premonition Records).  Midway through this jam session, Michael Arnopol cuts loose on his acoustic bass in jazzy yet articulate fashion.  The Sigs give a true-to-form account of this solo, right down to the resonances of the bass’s soundboard.  Continuing the low-frequency session, I go to the Pipes Rhode Island CD (Riago) for Stephen Martorella’s masterful handling of the Widor Adagio.  The low pedals on this piece prove little problem for the Sigs, whose little woofers move considerable air in my listening room.

From my perspective, voice reproduction separates loudspeaker contenders from pretenders, so I toss the Sigs Tony Bennett, in an XRCD2 remastering of The Tony Bennett Bill Evans Album (JVC).  Bennett’s slightly raspy voice has a remarkable way of drawing you into each song.  One listen to “Some Other Time” reassures me that the Sigs can really do vocals.  To add more fuel to this fire, I play Isaac Freeman and the Blueblood’s “Beautiful Stars” (Lost Highway Records).  Freeman’s deep-bass vocals resonate like the voice of God, a quality captured by the Sigs, minus the mid-range coloration often found from small speakers.

Ultimately, speakers get their cardio workouts from large-scale orchestral works.  I administer this last treadmill test with a 24-bit/96-kHz download of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite turned in by Japanese conductor Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra (Reference Recordings).  This piece’s no-holds-barred finale has all the forces wailing away at fortissimo levels.  The next best thing to the players actually leading a frontal assault into my room is having the Sigs give me a good wallop, and they do so without a hint of strain.

The Ancestral Voices Have Spoken

In the past decade and a half following the arrival of my original pair of Mani-2s, there have been three Washington administrations, two foreign wars, and, in case you missed it, a massive market tanking.  Surprisingly, the high-end audio industry has managed to rock on.  Some companies, like Totem Acoustic, have actually flourished and expanded their loudspeaker lines.  Each generation of Totem speakers has drawn from the wisdom of its ancestors.  This makes the company’s decision to issue a second Mani-2 generation an interesting one, since many of the newer Totem speakers have been larger floorstanders.

Comparing the Sigs to their forebears shows how much the Totem design team has invested in product reinvention.  The sonic strengths of the originals, such as good imaging and bass extension, have been further improved.  The soundstage is noticeably broader, deeper and taller.  The bass is better articulated, while highs sound more natural, courtesy of the new tweeter.  Most importantly, midrange clarity, not a strength of the original Mani-2s, is dramatically better.

Midway through my review, I noted that Totem offers an accessory that, for obvious visual reasons, is called the “Beak.”  This is a custom-milled 2-inch-high aluminum cone with “micro-ribs.”  According to the product literature, Beaks are meant to “control parasitic vibrations that occur on top of a speaker cabinet.”  Totem further suggests that Beaks help produce better imaging and high-frequency performance.  They can be placed atop each enclosure, either singly or in pairs.

While I am not a big-time tweaker, I did experiment with these curious devices.  Having the Beaks on and diagonally aligned from front to back produced smoother highs and a more coherent soundstage—maybe not to a shattering degree, since the Sigs are already so good, but the result was certainly noticeable and could be reproduced on repeated listenings.

Conclusions: Is the Mani-2 for you?

So what does $5,295 (plus an additional $300 to $400 for high-quality speaker stands) get you?  It won’t get you the huge soundstage of large panels or the subterranean bass of a separate subwoofer.  It will get you compact speakers that fit easily into most listening rooms.  It will get you intensely musical sound from all the sources at your disposal.  As a bonus, you will not need monster amps to drive these guys.  In a modest-sized listening room with two integrated amps, each rated at less than 40 watts per side, I got great sound aplenty from the Sigs, although their bass response seemed slightly plumper with the Pass than the PrimaLuna.

The jungle of $5,000-plus speakers is the natural habitat for many species of widely differing designs.  Most speakers in this price range will provide pleasurable listening if mated with proper electronics, cables and, most critically, a room with the appropriate dimensions.  When it comes to getting the most sound in a modest-sized room, the Mani-2 Sigs will give you just about as much as you can hope for in terms of imaging, smooth highs, clear mids and extended bass that has to be heard to be believed.  If this is not enough to sell you, you should note that my 15-year-old Mani-2s, while clearly bettered by the Sigs, still sound pretty darn good (i.e. I’m not throwing them away), which is a testimony to the build quality of Totem speakers.

Totem Acoustic Mani-2 Signature Speaker

MSRP: $5,295 (USD)


Digital Source Logitech Squeezebox Touch    PS Audio PerfectWave Transport and DAC MKII
Integrated Amplifier Pass Labs INT-30A    PrimaLuna Prologue Premium
Power Conditioner Running Springs Audio Elgar\
Cables Nordost Valhalla and Frey
Power Cords Nordost Valhalla, Brahma and Vishnu

KEF R300 Bookshelf Speakers

Full-line speaker manufacturers, like Focal, B&W and the brand featured in this review, often deliver the most bang for the buck in the middle of their product ranges.  These products may not have the ultimate performance of the flagship, but they don’t cut corners either, as can often be the case with entry-level models.  And while KEF has been garnering a lot of justified praise on its specialty speaker models, like the Blade and the LS50, the potential buyer looking for a relative audio bargain would do well to investigate the KEF R Series.  There’s some fine stuff happening in this range, folks.

The R300 is the larger of the two bookshelf models in the R Series.  And unlike its smaller sibling, the two-way R100, the R300 is a three-way bookshelf, which is not the most common of layouts for a stand-mounted speaker.  It is interesting to note that the smallest speaker in KEF’s Reference Series, the 201/2, is also a three-way stand-mounted model.  I’ve heard the Reference 201/2 on a number of occasions and have always been really impressed with its honest presentation of music.  I’m here to tell you that the R300 gets within a stone’s throw of the 201/2, doing so at a much more reasonable price; the R300s cost $1,800 per pair, compared to $6,000 for the 201/2s.

Technology and Performance

Unlike KEF’s former middle range, the XQ Series, which were great sounding and gorgeous to boot, these R Series products won’t win any beauty contests.  They are simple-looking boxes, albeit ones that are superbly finished and constructed.  The review pair of R300s arrives in a nice black-gloss finish.  (Rosewood and walnut veneers are also available.)  The beauty of this range is in the technology and performance.  Some nice touches with this line include the magnetically attached grilles and the strapless bi-wire capability, which makes for easy bi-wiring and lets you forget about losing the gold-plated brass strap usually supplied with speakers in this price category.

The R300 features yet another generation of KEF’s Uni-Q driver, which is central to most KEF products, giving them their signature coherent sound.  For those unfamiliar with the Uni-Q, it is KEF’s way of making the midrange and treble drivers into a point-source radiator—the often sought-after but rarely attained ideal for a lot of speaker manufacturers.  This generation Uni-Q benefits from the same technology in KEF’s flagship Blade speakers.  The midrange cone is made from an aluminum-magnesium composite, which makes for much-desired lightness and stiffness.  Ribs across the surface of the driver cone minimize resonance, while the surrounding material provides further dampening.  The tweeter, which is made from the same material, is rear vented to reduce backward pressure, minimize distortion and increase power handling.  KEF’s tangerine wave guide fits over the tweeter diaphragm to further control the already wide dispersion characteristics, particularly those at the highest frequencies.

The 6-inch bass driver is also a stiff and strong aluminum affair, anodized with a satin-like material, with a large aluminum voice coil and a vented magnet assembly behind it.  One quickly realizes that this rather conventional-looking box is anything but—there is a lot of technical sophistication packed into this small cabinet.

Initial Assessment

I play music through the R300s for 80 hours before optimizing them up for serious listening, with perfect placement via a pair of 26-inch Sound Anchor stands to put the Uni-Q driver at ear level relative to the sitting position from my couch.  With this placement, the front plane of the speakers is 3 feet from the back wall, with each unit 3.5 feet from the sidewalls.  A slight 5-degree toe-in puts the optimum listening point with the most-stable imaging just over 9 feet from the speakers.

Serious listening begins with some small-ensemble jazz selections.  First up, the self-titled Bill Frisell, Ron Carter and Paul Motian Trio, from three musicians needing no more introduction.  On the album’s Miles Davis/Ron Carter bluesy composition “Eighty One,” the R300 captures the interplay of these musicians in a seemingly large acoustic space.  The speakers reproduce Carter’s muscular acoustic bass without bloating, but with a tightness, depth and scale that is surprising given the small stature of the speaker.  Drums appear dramatic, with a snapping snare that shows off the quick acceleration of the Uni-Q driver.  Cymbals sound physically higher in the mix and have a textured shimmer with plenty of decay—this tweeter is indeed a honey.  In the midst of all this, Frisell’s quirky guitar stays locked front and center, as occasional biting chords punctuate the mix.  The R300 paints an engaging and natural portrait of this trio playing at the top of their game.

Next up, the Tord Gustavsen Quartet’s newest CD, The Well, on ECM; the soulful R&B composition “Circling” proves highly satisfying.  The R300 puts Gustavsen’s piano squarely between the speakers in a very deep space, keeping the recording well organized amongst the rest of the players.  The brushwork on drums emphasizes the low distortion of the Uni-Q driver—there is some real magic going on in this small cabinet.

The Best for Last

I turn to vinyl for some female vocals, starting with Ella Fitzgerald’s “Black Coffee,” from the soundtrack to the 1960 film Let No Man Write My Epitaph.  This sparse ballad is no more than Paul Smith on piano accompanying Fitzgerald, and brings to the forefront the precise imaging capabilities of the Uni-Q.  Fitzgerald’s lead vocals are focused dead center, yet you can hear her moving around the mic during the tune, with soft piano dancing in the background all the while.  This level of realism keeps me riveted to the chair for the entire album.

Patti Smith’s voice is a tough one to capture without it sounding overly harsh or shrill, and can go awry with speakers based on metal drivers, degenerating her vocals into a ball of harshness.  The ease with which the R300s handle this intricate voice instantly reveals just how effectively KEF has tamed stray resonances.  Howard Tate singing his 1960s hit, “Get it While You Can,” illustrates the integration of these drivers, with the rise and swell of his raspy, wide-ranging voice revealing no anomalies.  Rocking out with Television’s album Marquee Moon is just good fun, yet playing this rock classic louder than is prudent demonstrates how much punishment these speakers can handle—they are much like the Blades in this respect.  And it does get the juices flowing!

As with all small speakers, the R300s do a fantastic job spatially with large-scale orchestral music.  They excel at delivering the timbre and tonal richness of The Reiner Sound via Classic Records’ 200-gram reissue of this Living Stereo classic.  And while the fundamentals of the plucked double bass remain true to sound and texture through the R300s, there is definitely a limited reach to their low-frequency abilities.  Should your musical taste require more extension, consider KEF’s R400b powered subwoofer, a perfect companion to these stand speakers.  But that’s another review…

With so much attention focused on KEF’s amazing LS50, the R300 holds its own surprisingly well.  It shares the LS50’s Uni-Q driver technology and to some extent its voicing, but it is a different animal indeed.  The LS50 offers a slightly wider frequency response, with a smidge less midrange purity.  However, it does appear to play slightly louder, so each will appeal to a different user.  Think of the LS50 as a European version of the Lotus Esprit, and the R300 as its slightly heavier yet slightly more-comfortable U.S. sibling.

It should be noted that the R300’s reasonable 88-dB sensitivity means anything over about 25 watts per channel is a go—depending on your room size, of course.  Tubes or solid-state power amplifiers work equally well, and the R300 is more than resolving enough to illustrate the differences.  In the end, the R300 is proof positive of an exciting product from a legacy company that understands vertical integration.

KEF R300 Bookshelf Speakers

MSRP:  $1,800 per pair


Analog Source VPI Classic 1/Sumiko Blackbird
Digital Source  Simaudio MiND streamer    Rega DAC
Preamplifier PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium    Klyne SK5-A
Power Amplifier PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium    Krell KSA-50

Polk Audio LSiM703 Speakers

Polk Audio has been making high-quality products since 1972.  Over the last few years, the company has been stepping up its game at the high end of its product line, beginning with the LSiM707 floorstanding speakers, which we reviewed back in issue 42.  The $1,500-per-pair LSiM703 bookshelf speakers reviewed here capitalize on the same technology and driver advances as the larger 707s, but do so in a smaller package.  And like the $4,000-per-pair 707s, the 703s perform well beyond what their modest price tag suggests.

The three-way LSiM703 employs a rear port and Polk’s Dynamic Sonic Engine design, which places the 3.25-inch midrange driver and 1-inch ring radiator tweeter in separate chambers within the speaker enclosure, further isolating the driver units from the acoustic vibrations produced by the woofer.  The midrange and woofer cones are constructed of polypropylene, which is injected with air to form a honeycomb structure that combines the benefit of low mass, stiffness and high damping.  The crossovers include both Mylar and polypropylene capacitors, as well as non-magnetic air-core inductors, which are less prone to electrical-signal disturbance and thus deliver improved transparency.  This construction provides a good balance between sensitivity and smooth frequency response, and is indicative of the speaker’s build quality in general—from the flush grilles, right down to the high-quality jumpers between the binding posts, which can be bi-wired.

Our review samples are finished in an attractive cherrywood veneer.  (Ebony is also an option.)  The speaker’s MDF-based enclosure is exceptionally inert, which a classic knuckle-rap test confirms.  I leave the grilles off for all listening sessions, though they will come in handy wherever prying fingers or noses lurk.  I find that the LSiM703’s bass response and imaging focus benefit from inert stands, and my 26-inch-tall Sound Anchors prove a perfect fit.

Engineering Excellence

The detail paid to the time alignment, transparency and coherency comes through the LSiM703s immediately, allowing the heart and soul of the music to shine, regardless of musical genre.  Malian vocal legend Salif Keita’s album Papa, with its modal melodies and deep grooves, is a magical experience through the compact Polks, which require proper toe-in to create a convincingly holographic presentation.  I suggest the classic equilateral triangle configuration for optimal results.

The Stranglers’ classic track “Golden Brown” is a great reference, combining a dry but well-recorded lead vocal and great melody with intricate interplay between bass and drums.  Lesser speakers homogenize these elements, but the Polks shine, keeping the pace and keeping the individual elements separate from one another.  I put this tune on repeat for more than a few plays.  On the title track of Lisa Hannigan’s Passenger album you can hear every breath and lip purse on her closely miked vocals—a tough accomplishment for a speaker in this price category.

While the LSiM703s are not an overly analytical or strident speaker, they are precise in the way that their realistic presentation draws you into the music, and then holds you there.  Music lovers will have a difficult time using them strictly for background music.  They start and stop transient musical events on a dime, with no overhang, confusion or timing issues.  The Polks sometimes even seem to have the authority and realistic weight in the bass region of floorstanders, with the bass guitar and bass drum having real impact and definition.  The only trade offs that become apparent after extended listening are the sudden falloff of the deepest bass notes and the last bit of midrange refinement that far costlier speakers offer.

To their credit, the LSiM703s always stay out of the way of the music, allowing the distinctions between different masterings of classic albums to come through with ease.  The speakers also spotlight newer recordings that fall victim to the “loudness wars,” and give recordings with excellent dynamic range plenty of breathing room.  In this regard, they remind me of my Thiel CS2.4 floorstanders; that’s pretty good company, considering that the Thiel’s cost four times what the Polks do.

The LSiM703s work equally well with solid-state or tube amplification, making them an easy fit for whatever you have on hand.  I fall smitten when pairing them with the Carver Black Magic 20 stereo tube amplifier I just finished reviewing; combining EL84 tubes and the smoothness of the Polks makes for a seductive, user-friendly system.

A Superb Value

The overall feel of the Polk LSiM703s is one of a more relaxed ease, mixed with high-quality construction; nothing screams budget in their sound or appearance.  That’s the advantage of going with speakers from a company with 40 years of engineering and manufacturing expertise.  Polk has hit the bull’s-eye with the LSiM703, proving that a big company can easily compete with (and even excel beyond) what a smaller artisan company can accomplish, and do so at a moderate price.  These speakers are on my suggestion list for friends on a reasonable budget in the market for quality bookshelf speakers.  We are happy to award the LSiM703s one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2013.

Additional Thoughts

By Jeff Dorgay

Visiting the Polk factory in 2010 and seeing a full complement of ARC REF components in the demo room, I knew the company was serious about “getting back into the audiophile market.”  Touring the factory and getting a chance to talk to the engineering staff, it’s clear that Polk really wants to make a mark with the LSiM series, which the company has done with great success.  On many levels, I’d even compare Polk to Hyundai in the sense that it is making a reasonably priced product that scores as high or higher than Lexus on the J.D. Power surveys.  Another great parallel is the KEF LS50 mini-monitor.  It’s amazing what big speaker companies can accomplish when they apply their design and manufacturing expertise to a real-world pricing structure.

Before shipping the LSiM703s off to Andre, I was anxious to see just how much of the 707 floorstanders sound was available here.  Because the 707, 705 and 703 all share the same components in their Dynamic Sound Engine driver design, you really only give up low-frequency weight and dynamics as u come down the range, so those listening in a smaller room aren’t really sacrificing much.  In my smaller (13-foot-by-16-foot) room, these speakers really rock the place, and a little bit of room gain goes a long way.

While these speakers can illustrate the differences between amplifiers incredibly well, I share Andre’s excitement for using them with tube amplifiers.  I have excellent results with the PrimaLuna ProLogue Premium integrated, as well as with my vintage Conrad Johnson MV50.  Combining the speakers with the Rega Brio-R integrated amp, a Rega DAC and a Mac mini makes for a smoking system for about $3,500—which is a perfect place to start your audiophile journey, or just stay there happily ever after.  There’s never been a better time to be a music lover and an audio enthusiast.

Polk Audio LSiM703 Speakers

MSRP: $1,500 per pair


Amplifier McIntosh MA6600 integrated amplifier
Digital Only C700R CD Player    Logitech Squeezebox Touch with Keces XPS   Rein Audio X3-DAC
Cables Transparent MusicWave MM2 speaker cable   Darwins Cables Silver interconnects    Kimber Kable Opt-1 TosLink

Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 65 Speakers

The market for sub-$1,000 speakers continues to get hotter.  Combining modern design tools and talented engineers with manufacturing in Asia allows more great-sounding loudspeakers to occupy this price range.  Products from Definitive Technology always come up at the top of friends’ and reviewers’ lists.  The SM 65 speakers reviewed here retail for just $900 a pair.

The SM 65 stands 20 inches tall and measures 18 inches from front baffle to back panel.  Weighing in at 22 pounds apiece, this is no “mini monitor.”  The speaker’s gloss-black front baffle is attractive and features a D’Appolito array, with Def Tech’s proprietary 5.25-inch midrange driver above and below a specially treated aluminum dome tweeter.  Interestingly, the speaker combines a top-firing passive radiator with a phase-coherent crossover network and heavy internal bracing on the cabinet—this is top-quality stuff for a speaker at this price.

Simple Setup

The SM 65s are finished in black, and each speaker comes equipped with two sets of high-quality binding posts to allow for bi-wiring.  I single-wire the speakers with a pair of Transparent MusicWave cables.  Def Tech supplies a set of attractive grilles with the speakers, but all of my listening was done without them.  The speakers benefit from high-quality stands; I use stands from Sound Anchors for my review.

Toeing-in the SM 65s at about 20 degrees works perfectly in my room, and because of the speakers’ small size, they are easily adjusted to achieve the ideal balance for your room and taste.  The review pair arrives with a few hours on the clock, so it only takes an hour or so for the speakers to settle into a groove that keeps me in the listening chair for hours.

The SM 65s’ 92-dB sensitivity makes them incredibly easy to drive; they require very little power to rock the house, which makes them a good fit for low-power tube amplification.  They are an excellent match for the 20-watt-per-channel Bob Carver Black Magic 20 stereo amplifier I reviewed last issue.  Our publisher even mentions that he has excellent results pairing the SM 65s with his 25-watt-per-channel 845 SET amplifiers and the EL-34-powered Ultravalve amp from AVA.

Getting Down to Business

After just a brief listen, I quickly discover the areas in which SM 65s are superb.  First and foremost, they excel at presenting soundstage depth, providing the best I have experienced from a sub-$1,000 speaker, with the recording space extending well behind the speakers.  The soundstage width these speakers provide is equally enticing, as they spread the performers across my listening room.  Even more exciting is the tonal purity through the midrange that the SM 65s deliver; vocals are beguiling, as are acoustic instruments.  Piano, strings and acoustic guitar are well represented, which is a tough mark to hit at this price.

Thoroughly satisfied with speaker position, I turn first to the sublime new release from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push The Sky Away, which I have been listening to a lot recently.  This is one of the most melodic and focused recordings of Cave’s amazing career.  Midway through this dramatic song cycle, it becomes clear to me that I’m experiencing a performance, rather than merely listening to a home playback system, which is a rather rare occurrence for a speaker of this size.  Through the SM 65s, Cave’s voice is as present and dimensional as one could hope for, especially within the context of the sparer arrangements—a definite goose-bump moment.

The excellent 2002 remaster of Lou Reed’s classic album, Transformer, is a blast through these speakers, with all the elements of the mix coming together as a coherent whole.  Key tracks like “Satellite Of Love” and “Walk On The Wild Side” sound fresh and lively.  It’s easy to hear why this album was so hugely influential.

Marvin Gaye’s overlooked masterpiece, In Our Lifetime, is equally revelatory.  The genius of Gaye’s catchy melodies, funked-up rhythms, dense arrangements and famous vocals (which are clearly at their peak at this point in his career) all feel as if they are framed in a halo, while the speakers easily keep pace with the snappy bass lines and syncopated beats—pure magic.

Staying on the Marvin Gaye kick, I turn next to his sprawling masterwork from 1978, Here, My Dear.  This R&B/funk classic sounds otherworldly through the SM 65s, which never single out any obscure detail at the expense of overall musical flow; it feels like I am sitting at a mixing console in a smaller room.  The StudioMonitor lives up to its title.

By Comparison

Though my reference Harbeth Compact 7ES-3s are considerably more expensive than the SM 65s, both pairs share aspects that I enjoy—primarily seamless driver integration and tonal purity.  Even after a short time, it’s obvious that the SM 65s make great music.  They are highly balanced speakers that make extended listening sessions a breeze, while eschewing fireworks for timbral clarity.

The $900 SM 65s use the same mid-woofer and tweeter as the $400 SM 45s, which TONEAudio recently reviewed, as well as an identical cabinet design.  The simple enclosure is perfectly acceptable at $400, but as we approach the $1,000 mark, there are a handful of competitors providing better aesthetics.  I’d happily pay another $100 to see the SM 65s in a cabinet more worthy of their sonic performance.  (Perhaps a Signature series is in order?)  The same goes for the binding posts and jumpers, which seem to be plaguing a number of other speakers these days.  The SM 65s’ binding posts are difficult with beefier speaker cables.

However, these are minor points.  In the end, the sound quality of Def Tech’s SM 65s proves paramount.  These are a great pair of speakers around which to build a high-performance yet reasonably priced system.

Definitive Technology StudioMonitor 65 Speakers

Zu Soul Superfly

High-end companies like to claim that they create speakers that don’t sound like other audiophile speakers. Usually, such assertions are just talk. But Utah-based Zu Audio breaks almost every rule of speaker design. What’s more, its American-manufactured designs kick ass, and play nice and loud without raising a sweat. And since all Zu models feature a 10.3″ full-range driver that covers bass, mid, and well up into the treble range, they don’t use a complex crossover network. This almost direct-coupled approach yields major sonic dividends in the critical midrange region.

In Zu’s Soul Superfly, the main driver extends slightly beyond 10khz, and is augmented by a supertweeter that uses a Polish-made 1″ composite dome tweeter mounted in a beautifully machined aluminum-flared horn. Most tweeters on two- or three-way designs are crossed over much lower, typically between 1.2—4kHz. Zu’s technique makes for a dramatic difference in the way the speaker puts sound in the room. Boy, does it ever!

Big Brother and Little Brother

The Soul Superfly is a hot-rodded version of the Soul, and the models sport a few key differences. The Soul is internally wired with Zu Mission cables; the Superfly is cabled with Zu’s silver alloy B3. While the Soul uses ERSE Pulse-X audio grade polypropylene capacitors, the Superfly utilizes Mundorf Silver/Oil capacitors inline with the tweeter. The Superfly’s cabinet is internally coated with a layer of QuietCoat Composite paint, with the MDF bonded with a penetrating binder; the Soul is untreated MDF. The Superfly employs a Cardas copper speaker wire clamping connector forged to the internal cable harness; the Soul uses traditional five-way binding posts. The Superfly can be custom ordered in any finish; the Soul is only available in Zu Smooth Matte black.

A Modest-Sized Speaker, Served Best with Tubes

Zu designs are super-efficient, and the Soul Superfly is no different, boasting a very healthy 101dB @ 1 watt spec. So it can rock the house with just a handful of watts. Don’t worry, power handling hasn’t been slighted; this bad boy can handle 300 watts. The Soul Superfly’s 16 ohm impedance favors tube amps, so I used three: the Miniwatt N3 with 3.5 watts per channel; the Jolida FX10 with ten watts per channel; and a Luxman SQ-38u 30-watt integrated. The Superfly’s high impedance also makes for a splendid match with OTL (output transformerless) tube amps from Atma-Sphere, Transcendent Sound, and Futterman. Zu claims that solid-state amps won’t be the best matches with the Soul Superfly, but the company produces a few models that work equally well with solid-state amplification.

As far as space demands are concerned, the Soul Superfly isn’t that big. It measures 38″ high and 12″ square at its base, while the sloping side panels meet at the 9.5″ square top panel. The MDF cabinet feels solid, and the speaker weighs 50 pounds. Build quality is excellent, and the model is available in three standard textured finishes: Chocolate, Cosmic Latte (beige), Cosmic Carbon gray. Zu also offers extraordinary custom-finish options, albeit for a whopping $2,000 extra. The fee is based on 20 extra hours of labor and the cost of expensive paints. But the charge is worth it. That metallic lime green Soul Superfly I spotted at the 2010 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest? Absolutely stunning.

Class Comparisons

Sonically, the Soul Superfly is tonally rich and solid, and possesses a weight that few other speakers anywhere its price range muster. Credit the 10.3″ driver’s air-moving power, dynamic punch, and near full frequency bandwidth for the gravitas. The sound is not as transparent as Magnepan’s spectacular MG 1.7 panel speaker ($1,995/pair) I reviewed in Issue 30, but the 1.7 can’t match the Soul Superfly’s tonal richness. If you want both—transparency and soul—be prepared to drop more dough.

Zu’s Essence is a larger speaker, and utilizes a ribbon tweeter, making for a more refined-sounding experience. Still, I’m partial to ribbon tweeters. The Essence sounds bigger, with more air, resolution, a deeper soundstage, and more bass definition than that of the Soul Superfly, all for a higher price.  The Essence doesn’t even match the Magnepan’s walk-through transparency, but like the 1.7, Zu’s speakers march to a different beat.

The Soul Superfly’s big attraction? The way it unleashes dynamics. You’d be hard pressed to find another box or panel speaker anywhere near the Soul Superfly’s size or price that touches it. In this sense, the speaker sounds more like a horn speaker, but without the usual horn (cupped-hand) colorations.

Amplifiers As Soul Food

I never thought Philip Glass’ music had a wit of soul until I played it on these speakers. I liked the idea of Glass’ music, but it often sounded cold, mechanical, and uninviting. The Soul Superfly changed my longstanding opinion once I played Glass’ Glasspieces LP. Whoa. The music’s rhythms and grooves had me going, big time. The Soul somehow uncorked more of the music than I’d heard before. This was material that, after all, was once performed by living, breathing players, and it’s the hi-fi’s job to bring them back to life. The Soul did just that.

Early 1970s Columbia LPs tend to sound thin and hard, but that wasn’t the case with Al Kooper’s I Stand Alone when played through the Luxman SQ-38u integrated amp. The record’s strings and brass, bathed in reverb, were a treat, and Kooper’s elastic vocals seemed more humanly present than I’d previously experienced. The Soul Superfly projected a large soundstage, with fairly sharp focus. Not bad for an LP purchased for 99 cents at Princeton Record Exchange.

Switching amps, the Jolida FX10 did a fine job goosing the Soul Superfly into action with the Black Keys’ raunchy blues. The duo’s latest, Brothers, is a low-down romp, with massively distorted guitar and pummeling drums, and is best enjoyed with the volume cranked way up. The FX10 obliged, though the Luxman coaxed even more grunt from the mix. In addition, the Luxman delivered considerably more meat on the bones, but the FX10’s sound was immensely satisfying on its own. Brothers sports the best batch of tunes from any Black Keys album, and the Soul Superfly only increased my love for the record.

The designation of the tubiest-sounding amp in the listening chain fell to the Miniwatt N3, a single-ended design that utilizes a single ECC83 twin-triode tube feeding one EL84 output tube per channel. The N3 delivered a healthy 3.5 watts per channel to the Superflys, and they loved it. Sure, it looked almost comical: A teensy 5.25″ wide and 6″ deep amp next to the Souls. But those 3.5 watts were sweet and clear, with a truly gorgeous midrange and pleasantly full bass. Tone color and dimensionality were absolutely yummy, and textures came through with utmost transparency. The Miniwatt N2 sells for just $378, but I could happily live with it and the Soul Superfly.

As might be expected, the Luxman SQ-38u integrated tube amp (review in the works) proved the best overall mate with the Soul Superfly, yielding more holographic imaging and a very un-hi-fi, yet totally musically convincing sound. Instruments sounded more natural, and after three different amplifiers, I became convinced that the Soul Superfly was designed for tubes. Why? There’s a rightness to the sound that my solid-state amps can’t match. Bass doesn’t go subwoofer deep, but it’s generously proportioned.

The solid-state Pass Labs XA100.5 monoblock amps exerted a profound sense of control over the Soul Superfly, the sort of difference that could be definitely felt when a drummer really whacked his kit. The big solid-state monoblocks offered more slam and dynamic contrast, but the overall tonal balance shifted to the cooler side. While this never appeared mechanical or harsh, it was easier to forget about the gear when I had a tube amplifier in the chain.

Blow Out the Candles

Zu just celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2010, and it seems like the company has only begun what will be a long run. The Soul and Soul Superfly are the latest additions to a promising product line and should be perfect fits for those with low-to-moderate-powered tube amplifiers that want something out of the ordinary.

Zu Audio Soul Superfly

MSRP: $2,600 a pair


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources Ayre C-5xe MP Universal Player    Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition
Electronics Parasound JC 1 preamp    Whest 2.0 phono preamp    Parasound JC 1   Miniwatt N3   Jolida FX10    Luxman SQ-38u    Pass Labs XA100.5    First Watt J2
Speakers Dynaudio C-1    Zu Essence    Mangepan 3.6
Cable Zu interconnects and speaker cable    XLO Signature-3 interconnects, speaker cable and power cords    Audioquest Sky interconnects

Polk Blackstone TL2 and PSW111 Speaker Combination

One of the biggest concerns facing the audio industry is how to lure new converts to the wacky world of gear. These days, the higher end of the high end will easily set you back six figures. That’s not only out of reach of Joe Six-Pack, it’s out of reach of most rational humans that don’t earn seven figures. At TONE, we continue to provide more coverage of entry-level and vintage gear for good reason; we all have to start somewhere. But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. You can get satisfying sound on a tight budget, and the Polk Audio Blackstone TL2s will stretch your audio budget further than anything I’ve ever experienced.

Since its emergence in the mid-70s, Polk’s mantra to offer high-end sound without matching high-end pricing has remained the same. On a recent visit to its corporate headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, I saw and heard a number of its latest efforts, including a new flagship speaker in the $5,000 per pair range. But the most exciting thing I saw was the Blackstone TL2 speakers you see here.

For $99.99 each, you get a pair of tiny satellite speakers that use a 3 ¼-inch-long throw woofer and ½-inch silk dome tweeter in a tiny cabinet weighing only about 3 pounds that I guarantee will blow you out of your chair, ala the old Maxell cassette man, when they are mated with the matching PSW111 subwoofer ($299.99.) So, for $500, you can have a rocking set of speakers that won’t take up much space in your living area.  Add a great vintage 70s receiver for $200 to $300, and you still have enough money left from a $1,000 bill to grab a decent used turntable.

Five- and six-figure speakers are pretty normal in our world, so it’s incredibly cool when you hear something this amazing for $500. For the stylistically inclined, rest assured that these speakers look as great as they sound. Their curved cabinets should fit any decor, whether you use them with stands or mount them to the wall or ceiling.

How Does Polk Do It?

Beginning with its RM 3000 system, Polk entered the world of small satellite main speakers with a powered subwoofer in the late 80s. The tiny speakers and their powered subwoofer listed for $700 and redefined what a sat/sub system could do.  They may not have invented the genre, but they certainly moved to the head of the class in short order.  More than 20 years later, Polk remains at the forefront, building a better system for $200 less. Of course, some of this is due to offshore manufacturing, but most of the credit goes to the experienced design team located in their Baltimore.

Employee turnover is very low at Polk, and a majority of the staff has been with the company for decades. Such depth of experience makes it a lot easier to build a substantial base of knowledge. Every aspect of Polk speakers is designed from the ground up, which also helps in a situation like this, because instead of trying to build a box around off-the-shelf components, Polk’s engineers designed everything to solve the specific problem of making a high-performance speaker fit in a small enclosure.

Just like Polk’s larger speakers, the TL2 uses a ring radiator tweeter that is similar to that used in its LSi floorstanding speaker systems. The company’s Time Lens system of aligning the woofer and mid bass on the same plane gives the speakers a high level of coherence, making them sound much like a single-driver speaker but with the performance advantages of a two-way system. (Read about the TL2’s other unique features here:

Set-up Options

Polk offers three different ways to use the TL2/PSW111 combination. No matter what your amplification situation, it’s a breeze to utilize. The system can be used with your speaker level outputs, line level outputs, or, if you have a multichannel home-theater system with an LFE input, that will also work.

The TL2 claims a low-frequency response spec of -3db at 125Hz, but you can take advantage of room gain by placing the speakers in the corner of the room or near the rear walls. They will even work well on a bookshelf, though imaging performance may suffer. The PSW111’s LF crossover setting is variable from 60Hz to 150Hz. A 60Hz setting is too low for the TL2s and leaves a hole in the upper-bass response, but start at that level so you can slowly bring up the subwoofer level and presence.

Should you lack sophisticated measurement tools, play a few bass-heavy tracks and fine-tune the level and frequency crossover controls until the speaker system has sufficient bass weight without the subwoofer sounding rough or boomy. You’ll know you’ve nailed it when you get full-bodied bass response from the tiny speakers and can’t really tell where the sub is located in the room. If you have access to test tones, you can get a great feel for where the satellites stop and the subwoofer takes over, making it easier to concentrate on overall system smoothness.

Mind-Blowing Sound

Any pre-conceived notions you may have about small speakers will vanish the minute you play music through the TL2s. Having heard more than my fair share of outright lousy inexpensive (under $1,000/pr.) speakers, the TL2s are a treat, even for those of you with champagne taste and budgets. Initially staying in the budget groove, I plugged in my used Pioneer SX-424 receiver that I picked up for $60 on eBay for last issue’s “Slummin” column. Using 50-cent-per-foot Radio Shack speaker wire and a used Denon 3910 universal disc player (also purchased on eBay for about $200) made for a highly impressive budget system, and a great place for any music lover to start their journey.

Even with 15 watts per channel, the little Polks played authoritatively. When listening Alice in Chains’ Jar of Flies, I could crank “I Stay Away” to (small) room-rattling levels. A brief stint with favorite tracks that have a lot of LF energy will help you optimize the subwoofer to perfection and attain more musical enjoyment.

As much fun as the TL2/PSW111 combination is with a vintage receiver, I wasn’t ready for the big jump in sound quality I got when stepping up to better electronics.  First, I swapped the SX-424 for the Cambridge Audio 840P (a 90-watt-per-channel solid-state integrated amplifier) and then, for the Croft Series 7 tube preamplifier, and finally, the Micro 25 hybrid power amplifier. Each took the sound quality further than the preceding setup. Indeed, the TL2s are extremely revealing speakers.

Suffice to say that, when mated to the $2,500 Croft setup, the Polk combination more than held its own. Connecting it to world-class electronics revealed imaging performance and reproduction of spatial cues that I expect from speakers costing much more. Granted, with the dCS Paganini stack driving the system, you could now easily hear the speakers’ limitations, yet they still made no missteps. The only errors were those of omission. But if you don’t listen to music with huge dynamic and frequency extremes, you may never miss a thing. Once properly setup, bass from the three-speaker system boasted excellent detail; this was not a case of hearing just one-note bass thump away. I was particularly excited listening to Marcus Miller’s new A Night In Monte Carlo, which contains several great bass solos.

The mids are natural and open, neither squawking nor beaming. Fans of vocal music will be thrilled with the large helpings of coherence. Listening to Anja Garbarek’s “Big Mouth” on her Smiling and Waving proved a joyful experience. The shifts in her timbral character as she goes from a highly processed background vocalist to a cleaner, main vocalist were easy to track with the speakers, as they never lost control of the electronic instrumentation in the background. Ani DiFranco’s live version of “Amazing Grace” from Living in Clip was another fun song that the TL2s aced. DiFranco’s complex vocal stylings fall flat and lose natural resonance on unresolving speakers. But the Polks sailed right through, delivering a rich performance. And if you are sick and tired of Nils Lofgren’s “Keith Don’t Go” (and let’s face it, who isn’t?) but hooked on plucky acoustic guitar music to serve as test material, try DiFranco’s “Gravel”–you may have a new favorite test track.

And if it’s power you want, it’s power you’ve got. I was consistently impressed with how loud these little speakers played without breakup. Though many of us believe that you can only get “big sound from big speakers,” the TL2/PSW111 combination renders such thinking obsolete. Even when spinning some of my favorite heavy tracks from Led Zeppelin, UFO, and Deep Purple, I was able to push these speakers extremely hard before distortion started to set in. And yes, I dialed up the volume up to levels that would certainly cause the average apartment or dorm dweller to get angry looks from neighbors.

Finally, the Polks do something that almost no budget speaker does well: They offer up a liberal share of resolution at low volumes. And in tackling this challenge, they do an even better job with tube amplification than solid-state. Even at quiet conversation levels, it was easy to discern the differences between Robert Plant and his backing vocalists on the recent Band of Joy. This degree of dynamics and contrast reveals a high level of linearity that I’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing at this price.

Oh, and for those looking for the ultimate computer system, the TL2s perform incredibly well when used nearfield on a desktop. With the subwoofer under your desk, the TL2s throw a huge soundstage. Matching them with the latest MiniWatt three-watt amplifier served as a perfect choice, as it coupled tube warmth with the speakers.

You Know You Want ‘Em!

I’ve rarely heard a pair of $1,000 speakers, let alone a $500 set, which possesses this level of balance. You need the subwoofer to make them sing, but it’s worth the extra money. The $600/pair Silverline Minuets are also excellent, but don’t have the TL2/PSW111’s bass grunt or cheaper price. The Polks win the day.

If I were starting my hi-fi journey today, these would be the speakers I would buy. The Polk TL2/PSW111 combination offers everything a music lover could want: Great imaging, weighty LF performance, tonal accuracy, and the ability to play loud when required. And they are solid enough that, should you join the ranks of dedicated audiophiles, you will be able to go through a few rounds of electronics upgrades before you start thinking about a better pair of speakers. The TL2s are that good; they may just stay in your family forever.

Polk Audio’s claim of “Big Speaker Sound Without the Big Speakers” is spot-on.  TONE is eager to award the TL2/PSW111 speaker combination one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2011, and they will be the speaker to beat for one of our Product of the Year Awards this December. Enthusiastically recommended.

The Polk Audio TL2 speakers and PSW111 subwoofer

MSRP: $99.99 ea (speakers), $299.99 (subwoofer)


Digital Source Denon 3910    dCS Paganini stack
Analog Source Dual 1219/Grado Red    Rega P3-24/Denon 103
Amplification Pioneer SX-424    Cambridge Audio 840P integrated amplifier    Croft Series 7 preamplifier/Micro 25 power amplifier
Cable Audio Art IC-3, SC-5    Radio Shack speaker cable

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

Dali F5 Fazon Loudspeakers

High-end audio products are often subcategorized by a single factor. For instance, in the mid 70s, many speakers built in California had a “West Coast Sound” characterized by a forward treble and somewhat forceful bass. Meanwhile, speakers from the other side of the country were said to possess an “East Coast Sound” favoring midrange accuracy.

While it’s tough to pigeonhole modern speakers according to such parameters, speakers from Denmark seem to share a natural tonality and an ability to capture the essence of instrumental texture without calling attention to their presence. Dali excels at these aspects. Its new F5 Fazon loudspeaker takes prior achievements two steps further by combining timeless styling with great sound and a small footprint.

Available in gloss black, white, or red, the Dali F5 is gorgeous to behold and will look right at home in the most fashionable of homes. Best of all, at $4,495, the F5s are affordable works of art.

Details, Details

Beautiful woodwork is a Danish hallmark, and Dali has always offered great cabinets. Throwing a wrinkle into traditionalism, the curvy F5s are machined from a block of aluminum. The speaker features an absence of parallel surfaces in order to keep to a minimum any cabinet resonance.

The three-driver complement works in a 2 ½-way configuration, with the crossover points set at 800 and 3200Hz, respectively. Dali maintains that their incorporation of wood fibre mixed into the pulp cones utilized in the dual 5-inch woofers are significant contributors to the model’s natural sound; adding increased cone stiffness and a more randomized structure. It also helps with the inner damping of the cone, a claim that only a few minutes of listening confirms as true. I have a personal preference for soft-dome tweeters; I’m always willing to forgo a smidge of ultimate resolution in the service of timbre. And here, the F5 delivers with a 1-inch soft dome tweeter that, as Ice-T would’ve said before he became a “Law and Order” mainstay, keeps it real.

A pair of banana jacks flush-mounted in the silver bases and a tiny compartment that allows you to completely conceal your speaker cables round out the form-and-function factor. Acoustically transparent speaker grilles magnetically attach; your décor and offspring will decide whether they should be left on or off.

Grilles aside, you should have the F5s playing music in a few minutes. Thanks to fairly wide dispersion, they will not suffer terribly if not aligned just right. If you are in the position to fuss over speaker placement, the F5s yield a bit more bass extension if you can keep them about 18 inches from the rear wall. Since the tweeters rise only 29 inches from the floor, lower seating grants the best imaging performance.

Finally, don’t let the 87db sensitivity frighten you: These speakers are incredibly easy to drive and work equally well with tube, transistor, or Class D amplification. Anything from 25 watts per channel and above should get the job done.

The F5’s Evaporative Nature

The F5’s bass response is solid but not overbearing. At first blush, one might think the speakers slightly thin because the upper-mid bass response isn’t goosed to provide a false sense of thickness. However, when called upon to move air, the pair of 5-inch woofers is mightier than the spec sheet suggests. Sampling Peter Gabriel music, old and new—via Genesis’ Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and his more recent Scratch my Back, respectivelythe speakers dispense ample impact. Via the F5s, there’s more than enough oomph on “Back in NYC” to sound convincing and hold at bay any thoughts of a subwoofer. Moreover, textures present in the acoustic bass line of “Heroes” on Gabriel’s latest record affirms that’s what is sonically conveyed is anything but one-note bass.

The F5s often remind me of my favorite mini monitors’ midrange clarity. Yet the former take up a smaller footprint than my Harbeth P3ESRs on Sound Anchors stands. Tracking through Pat Metheny’s new What’s It All About? demonstrates how well these speakers keep pace with the guitar icon’s fretwork and harmonics without becoming lifeless and flat.

Of course, enthralling midrange and ample bass don’t alone make a fantastic speaker. Thanks to the small woofers, the F5s offer the degree of coherence required to effortlessly disappear in a room. The resolution will convince you that something very special is happening—an experience that allows you to ease back in the chair and focus on the musical event. Vide, “I’m a King Bee” from Grateful Dead’s Fillmore East: April 1971. The record boasts a wide range of texture and complexity that challenges the best speakers. Answering the bell, the F5s create a wide soundstage that mimics the Fillmore’s hall ambience.

Fatigue-free Finesse

Many speakers make impressive showings during a 10-minute demo. You know the drill: A salesperson plays some plucky guitar bits, runs through some female vocals, and even spruces it up with a touch of classical music or piano fare. It’s often all presented at high decibel levels. Still, you walk away impressed, perhaps so smitten that you reach for your wallet. But somehow, after a few extended listening sessions, those new speakers lose their luster and you’re right back to where you started.

A natural feel, which might initially make the F5s slightly less exciting, is what will keep you enthralled with them down the road. Even after full-day sessions with the F5s, they never become tiring. As much as a crammed Sooloos music server gnaws at my inner DJ and tempts me to spin singles, I find myself listening to many records all the way through with the F5s—truly the mark of a great speaker. I just want to stay in the groove, whether it’s with yet another version of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon or Girls’ Father, Son, Holy Ghost.

No, the F5s do not present the finite level of “pinpoint imaging” that some more decidedly audiophile speakers possess. However, they throw a full-bodied and three-dimensional soundfield. The wood blocks and triangle in Serge Gainsbourg’s “Douze Belles Dans la Peau” from Chant a la Une illustrate this strength. The triangle sporadically pops in all around the room, while the wood blocks are distinctly left of center and somewhat diffused, sounding just like a pair of wood blocks when I strike them in my listening room.

Dynamics are equally impressive. Although small woofers can only move a finite amount of air, these speakers’ woofers give a gold-ribbon performance when faced with heavier fare. Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and the Who present no problem. But, if your tastes tend towards the heaviest metal, I suggest adding one of Dali’s subwoofers.  AC/DC’s “Back in Black” comes across just fine, but Danzig’s “Am I Demon” requires a stronger push over the cliff. Just as important as dynamics, the F5s retain their open character at low volume levels—not always an easy trick and, perhaps, even more telling of a given speaker’s linearity.

Well? Hello, Dali.

Dali F5 Loudspeakers

$4,495/pair (factory) (US importer)


Digital Source Sooloos Control 15     dCS Paganini stack
Analog Source Avid Diva SPII/SME 3009/Ortofon SPU
Phono Preamplifier ARC PH6
Preamplifier Burmester 011
Power Amplifier Conrad Johnson MV-50C1     Channel Islands D500 Mk.II    McIntosh MC 452
Cable Cardas Clear

MartinLogan Montis Speakers

Variations on panel-speaker themes are so widespread, they’re enough to make one’s head spin: magnetic planar, ribbon, electrostatic, and hybrid combinations constitute the bevy of options. And woe to the audiophile that doesn’t agree with one approach. For instance, admitting to a Magnepan aficionado that you like MartinLogan speakers can be the equivalent of treason, sparking reactions that will leave you thinking you just argued with a bunch of soccer hooligans in a pub.

Having owned pretty much all panel types over the years—from the Quad 57 to the mighty Magnepan Tympani to the phenomenal MartinLogan CLX—I love ‘em all. However, they all have limitations that, when minimized, allow for captivating musical presentations one will either adore or despise. Much that of like a single driver/SET system, an ESL speaker’s midrange is positively dreamy. Vocals, in particular, sound amazingly lifelike.

Other than its CLX and earlier CLS, all full-range electrostatic designs, MartinLogan hangs its hat on a hybrid design that mates a dynamic (cone) woofer to an ESL panel. The approach looks great on paper, with the cone woofer bringing the necessary punch and the ESL panel providing the trademark finesse. In practice, however, it’s a tough marriage, as the woofer and ESL panel dissipate sound pressure in different ways, making for a slight disconnect in the frequency spectrum.

Critics of the hybrid approach argue that the woofer doesn’t have the necessary speed to keep up with the ESL panel, robbing the otherworldly coherence that draws us to the design in the first place. So, often like that other marriage of convenience, the SUV, it isn’t always as sporty or utilitarian as some might prefer. I’ve always been willing to excuse a bit panel/woofer integration perfection for weight and slam. I can’t play Metallica on Magnepans, but I can on the MartinLogans.

No manufacturer does a better job of joining a cone woofer to an ESL panel than MartinLogan. It’s for good reason—the company has more seat time with the breed than anyone else. MartinLogan’s constant refinement of woofer and crossover designs (and improvements to the ESL panel) cheats physics rather handily. Enter the $9,995 Montis.

Up and Running

MartinLogan provides some of the best manuals in the business, so you will be rocking out before you can even say “vertical dispersion.” These speakers weigh only 58 pounds each and are easily unpacked by one person. If your room accommodates such a setup, start with the speakers about 8-9 feet apart and with slight toe-in. MartinLogan’s “flashlight” method for setting toe-in works very well and, even though these speakers can nicely when placed close to the side walls of a listening room, the further you can keep them away from side walls results in a larger overall sound field.

When listening to the Montis on both the long and short wall in my 16 x 25 foot listening room, the former gets the nod for producing an expansive stereo image. I suggest moving the speakers apart in 6-inch increments until the stereo image collapses, then back in ever so slightly. The Montis are shipped with hard rubber feet that can be swapped with spikes. The latter results in slightly faster bass transients, but thanks to the great improvements I didn’t hear as much of a difference between spiked and unspiked operation as in past ML models.

The bass control, located on the rear panel, affects the output level of the woofer +/-10db at 100hz. Start at the center (zero) position and optimize speaker placement for the best balance of bass definition and midrange clarity, sparingly using the bass control for best results. Also, the Montis has a lighted “ML” logo on top of the woofer cabinet and a small blue LED on the front face. A three-position switch allows users to choose maximum blue, dim, and off.

Beauty Beneath the Surface

Looking much like the earlier Spire, reviewed very enthusiastically in Issue 20, the Montis uses the same ESL panel as the Summit X and a slightly different 10-inch woofer that crosses over to the panel 10hz higher at 340hz. (It was 330hz in the Spire.)

A new Vojkto-designed 24-0bit DSP crossover enables a far better match between woofer and panel than ever before. With custom slopes on the high- and low-pass frequency segments, the Montis boasts more bass drive than the Spire. Plus, integration improved tremendously. MartinLogan designers never sit still, and as scary as “equalized” sounds in product literature referring to the woofer, the concept works splendidly. According to Devin Zell, MartinLogan product manager, the DSP crossover yields another benefit: consistency. “We were able to achieve much more consistent results within the crossover, holding values to a much tighter tolerance than with passive components. This also provides more consistency from one sample of the product to another.”

Acoustic jazz tracks underscore how far the Montis has come. While the Summit and Spire never struggled in this area, acoustic bass always lacked a bit of texture. No longer. Grant Green’s Idle Moments exemplifies this newfound fluidity. The bass playing here is subtle, seldom taking center stage. Yet the additional texture supplied by the Montis keeps the bass in the center of the pocket, right where it belongs, allowing the listener to forget about it and providing a better foundation for the music.

Whether real or imagined, the increased clarity in the lower register permits more midrange detail to shine through. Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing features a more detached electric bass line that, while great on a pair of Cerwin Vegas, usually sounds somewhat out of place on a high-end system. The Montis nails it, retaining the force albeit tightening up the overall feel.

Tube Friendlier

Many ESL enthusiasts clinging to the notion that tubes are the only way to go with beloved panels forget that hybrid designs are a different animal. Earlier MartinLogan hybrids sport a minimum impedance in the 2-3 ohm range, making them easier to drive than recent models that drop to a .25-ohm impedance at 20khz.

While the Vantage, Summit, and Spire are not amplifier destroyers in the way that my full-range ribbon Apogees are, the high-frequency response nose-dives with practically every tube amplifier, often making for a combination that sounds similar to a traditional dynamic speaker, albeit with a blown tweeter. Happily, the Montis sports a minimum impedance of .56 ohms (with an overall impedance of 4 ohms)—making these speakers much easier to drive with a tube amplifier.

The match with the ARC REF 150 is downright spooky—plenty of high-end sparkle, taut bass response, and a wonderful, airy midrange that one usually associates with the finest vacuum-tube/ESL combinations. This amplifier stands as the one of the best companions for the Montis—the very best I’ve heard yet.

The Montis has no problem being driven by the 25-watt Grant Fidelity SET monoblock amplifiers, which utilize the gigantic 845 output tube. High frequencies don’t roll off; however, a slight midbass hump considerably warms up the sound. Some will welcome the more romantic sound, the pairing sounding more like a pair of Sound Labs or Acoustat 2+2s with more bass drive. Either way, the fact these speakers can be comfortably driven by an SET is remarkable. Listeners whose musical taste leans toward female vocalists should be enraptured by this marriage. Sinead O’Connor’s How About I Be Me (and You Be You?) proves exquisite, yielding the larger-than-life vocals at which ESLs excel.

Equally Adept With Solid-State

These speakers are no slouch with the Burmester 911 mk.3, either. Thanks to the Montis’ resolving abilities, the massive solid-state amplifier brings an equally tasty albeit different flavor to the fore. Whereas the REF 150 has a definite ceiling regarding how loud it can play, the 911 mk. 3 easily drove the efficient (91db/1 watt) Montis to brain-damage levels. Even when cranking the title track from AC/DC’s For Those About To Rock, there’s still plenty of headroom for the parting canon shots.

Fast speed metal, served up via Megadeth, Anthrax, and Motorhead, presents no issue for the Montis when the Burmester amplifier is at the driver’s seat, keeping the sound from the panels clean and controlled. Akin to the Summit, Spire, and Summit X, these ESLs rock—provided your amplifier is up to the task. An amplifier of lesser quality has more trouble driving the panels, a deficit that’s often be mistaken for a woofer/panel coherence issue. The better your power amplifier, the smoother these speakers sound.

Slowing the pace, the acoustic guitar interlude in the middle of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Déjà Vu” from the 25th Annual Bridge School Concerts becomes particularly moving. You can easily discern the sound of each individual guitar in its space and, when the players hit the occasional low string, the additional coherence of the new woofer/crossover keeps you in the groove, never drawing attention to the speakers.

Solid Evolution

Should you trade-in your Vantage, Spire, or Summits for Montis? It depends on your room, system, music, and pocketbook. If you absolutely must have the latest/greatest, snag a pair. Is this speaker a significant upgrade? Unquestionably.

When MartinLogan developed the current Spire and Summit X via crossover advances made on the CLX model, the speakers’ added midrange clarity impressed but the main quibble with the hybrid ESL design still lurked. The Montis makes the biggest jump to date at integrating a cone woofer with an ESL panel. If that’s what you’ve been craving, you will enjoy the Montis.

MartinLogan Montis

MSRP: $9,995/pair


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP/SME V tonearm/Koetsu Urushi Blue Cartridge
Digital Source dCS Paganini    Sooloos Control 15
Preamplifier Burmester 011
Phono Preamplifier ARC REF Phono 2
Power Amplifier ARC REF 5    Burmester 911 mk. 3    Pass Labs XA200.5s
Power Running Springs Dmitri and Maxim power conditioners
Cable Cardas Clear

Davone Ray Speakers

Looking at speakers at high-end audio shows often gives one the impression that audiophile speakers are designed to exclusively appeal to audiophiles. I’m a card-carrying audiophile, so sure, I think 73-inch tall, 600+-pound Wilson Alexandria X2 Series 2 speakers in “Fly Yellow” are drop-dead gorgeous. But the average dentist, business executive, or banker would probably think they’re monstrosities. Meaning that, even if they could afford to buy a pair, they wouldn’t consider living with them. Few “civilians” subscribe to high-end speakerdom’s form-follows-function aesthetic.

Which is why I smiled when I spotted the Davone Ray speakers at last year’s Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. On stands, the speakers didn’t come up to my waist, and their curvy styling, inspired by the iconic Charles Eames chair, stopped me in my tracks. Since the Danish-made Ray stands out in the overcrowded world of rectangular box speakers, I’m guessing non-audiophiles might be intrigued.

Moreover, the sound did not disappoint. MA Recordings’ Todd Garfinkel used a pair to demo his music, and I was totally smitten. The Rays projected a deep and wide soundstage, and the bass was more potent than I’d have expected from such a modestly sized speaker. I returned to listen again and again, so I was curious about how the sound would hold up at home.

Unique Design

Coming in at just 28.5″ high mounted on its stand, the Ray is small in stature. Granted, its modern styling won’t be a great fit with all decors, but its spouse-acceptance factor should be well above that of most full-range audiophile speakers.

The Ray sports a black cloth grille mounted on a plywood frame—something you won’t find on many speakers. Remove the grille, and you’ll see the front baffle is covered with nicely finished real black leather (the rear panel is leather-clad, too). I asked company founder and aeronautical engineer Paul Schenkel about why he opted for genuine leather. He said he prefers natural materials—not for sonic reasons, but for the quality they impart.

The Ray boasts just one (coaxial) driver, and it’s unique to this design. The driver incorporates a 1″ Illuminator silk-dome tweeter that sits in the center of an 8″ Volt woofer. No wonder the Ray produces a more coherent soundstage than speakers with a row of drivers arrayed over their front baffles. I’m sure other high-end speakers utilize a single coaxial driver, but the only one that immediately comes to mind is the Thiel SCS4. I remember being knocked out by the SCS4’s precise imaging, but the Ray is a more full-range design.

The powdercoat-black-finished solid-steel stands are also works of art. Their curves perfectly complement the speakers, and while I first thought the stands looked too spindly to securely support the Davone, there’s almost no give when I nudge the speaker with my finger.

The Ray’s curved, walnut-veneered, sixteen-ply beechwood cabinet is fitted with medium-density fiberboard front and rear baffles. Impedance is listed at 7.5 ohms, yet it gets down to 4.1 ohms at 20kHz. A Cardas speaker-wire clamp accepts spades, bare wire, and, in a pinch, banana plugs. The backside also sports a large bass port, so don’t even think of placing the Ray near a wall. This speaker needs room to breathe.

The Joys of Cooking

The Ray’s even-tempered balance is its prime virtue, but its big-as-life imaging is what kept me grabbing records. Older 1960s recordings, like the live Modern Jazz Quartet works with Jimmy Giuffre, sound wide-open. There’s a lot of “leakage” between mics on these albums, so when you play speakers as time-coherent as the Rays, you feel like you’re in a huge sound space. The solidity/presence of Guiffre’s clarinet, as well as that of the drums, bass, and piano, is nothing less than thrilling. The Rays more completely conjure the recording venue—not so much in the look-at-me, high-resolution sense—but in a manner that relates to the soul of the music and how live instruments actually sound.

These characteristics account for why the Ray’s midrange glories don’t require agonizing analysis. “Homeless,” from Paul Simon’s Graceland CD, elicits goosebumps. The track is almost a capella, with Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s vocals recorded at Abbey Road Studios. The voices sound strikingly human, an increasing rare quality on contemporary recordings. And on Simon’s  “My Little Town,” from Still Crazy After All These Years, I hear aspects of the mix I’ve never noticed before. Consider the opening solo piano, occupying an actual acoustic space. As acoustic guitar, horns, bass, and drums enter, the tune starts to sound like a standard 1970s multitrack pop recording. Listening over the Rays, you genuinely hear the mix evolve.

By contrast, Leonard Cohen’s Live Songs is a sparsely populated, purely acoustic affair. And Cohen is right there, between the Rays, as live as can be. This illusion is what high-end audio is about. It’s supposed to generate these epiphanies.

Satisfied the Rays can sound sweet, I pulled out the Black Keys’ Attack & Release CD to indulge my blues-rock fantasies. No worries—the Rays can boogie when the urge strikes. But if you live on a steady diet of high-decibel tunes, the speaker will not provide the necessary impact—certainly not like the kind you get from a pair of heavyweight towers.

That said, the Ray easily conveys the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s meaty, big and bouncy rhythms. The swinging ensemble doesn’t have a bass player; instead, the sousaphone’s blatting bass lines provide the music’s pulse. Lesser speakers gloss over such contributions, but the Ray never misses the beat. Indeed, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s Mardi Gras in Montreux LP could have been called The Joy of Cooking, New Orleans Style. There’s no Pro Tools messing with the sound, so the music speaks for itself.

Truly Original

Listening over the long term, the Rays constantly surprise me, with every record sounding different from the last—always a good sign. All LPs and CDs are recorded under wildly different circumstances, and the Ray made these facts abundantly clear.

There’s a lot to love about this speaker: Its small stature, unique styling, and the way its single driver presents an unusually transparent view of the music. I just wish more speaker companies were coming up with such truly original designs.

Manufacturer’s Information

Davone Ray

MSRP: $7,500 per pair


Analog Source VPI Classic turntable with van den Hul Frog cartridge
Digital Sources PS Audio PerfectWave Transpost & DAC     Oppo BDP-95 Special Edition
Electronics Pass XP-20 preamp    Simaudio 310 LP phono preamp    Bel Canto REF500s amp    Pass Labs XA100.5 amp    First Watt J2 amp
Speakers Dynaudio C-1    Mangepan 3.7
Cable XLO Signature 3 interconnects     Analysis Plus Silver Oval interconnects and speaker cables     Audioquest Sky interconnects

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.

Definitive Technology Studio Monitor 45

Do you have a pair of speakers that have been with you since college? TONEAudio contributor Jerold O’Brien owns a pair of JBLs that have been through hell and back—moved all the way around the world since our tenure at the University of Wisconsin. But they are like a good luck charm to him. One afternoon when we were struggling to adjust the Kugelfischer injection on his BMW 2002tii, listening to Alice Cooper’s School’s Out, he laughed and said, “I still love those speakers. Lots of great memories.”

Philosophers and self-help gurus like to say that getting started is 80% of the battle, and nowhere is this more true than beginning the daunting task of trying to assemble a hi-fi system for the first time. Sage advice says to pick a pair of speakers you like and build around them. After all, whether or not you agree with the concept that speakers most significantly shape the sound of your system, they certainly have the greatest impact on your decor. Chances are you’ll be living with your speakers longer than you will a preamp or a receiver, so getting it right the first time constitutes a bonus.

The inexpensive end of the audio spectrum never ceases to fascinate, only if because every design decision made on a $400 pair of speakers like the Definitive Technology SM45s is so very critical. On many levels, some of the best work in audio is done in this price neighborhood, primarily because it’s ultra-competitive. And much of it sounds dreadful if you’re the least bit used to the good stuff. Finding a great entry-level component feels like robbing a convenience store and getting away with the crime. It only seemed appropriate to play Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing” while un-boxing the SM45s.

It Can Be Done

The SM45s were one of the most exciting products I heard at the Consumer Electronics Show last January. Why? It’s exactly the kind of product that gets people excited about making a hi-fi system part of their lives. Combined with a decent amplifier, or perhaps a vintage receiver, one need only add an iPod to start rocking out.

These Definitive Technology models are tiny, only about 6 x 8 x 12, and can actually be used on a bookshelf. Yes, the concept got carried away in the 70s, eventually yielding speakers that were way too large to fit on even a library’s vast bookshelf. While you can place these small speakers on such a surface, they produce much better results when mounted on 24-30-inch-tall stands, so that the tweeters are near ear level. Your task? Finding a placement option that balances with your decor, and the tradeoff between maximum bass reinforcement and midrange clarity.

World-Class Budget Speakers—It’s Not an Oxymoron

The SM45s present Kathleen Edwards’ “House Full of Empty Rooms” from an honest tonal standpoint while capturing the breathiness and nuance the singer brings to the song, all the while doing a marvelous job of following the pace of the backing acoustic guitar. Admittedly, evident compression emerges when switching to Keel’s The Right To Rock and dialing the volume way up on some Korn, Metallica, and Tool.

While the SM45s would play really loud without distortion or destruction, they need more bass grunt to really come alive at high volumes with harder stuff. Metalheads are advised to invest in DefTech’s ProSub 800 or 1000 subwoofer ($399 and $499, respectively) to flesh out the system. Same thing goes for electronica fans. DJ Krush’s Strictly Turntablized could use a bit more boom to get the message across. But remember, these are $400 speakers. A pair, no less. Music with less than subterranean low notes is easily handled, and test tones reveal solid output to about 50hz.  If you can, move the speakers about 18 inches from the wall to take advantage of room gain.

The SM45s possess more than enough resolution to easily discern qualitative differences between Mobile Fidelity’s reissue of KC and the Sunshine Band on vinyl and the original CD. The nonexistent bass line in “Shake Your Booty” via CD comes through loud and clear when switching to LP, with the woofer cones really pulsing.

Avoiding the parlor tricks of goosing one part of the audio spectrum really makes the SM45s world-class budget speakers. They have incredible overall tonal balance.  Playing solo female vocals or electronica excites the “wow” neurons in your brain, and most inexpensive speakers really suck when the playlist takes a turn towards acoustic fare.

Sure, it’s fun blasting party tracks through the SM45s, and seizing upon the big soundstage they throw. And, you can actually listen to music on these speakers. After hours of torturing them with metal and techno tracks, slowing the pace down to engage Keith Jarrett’s Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note: The Complete Recordings proves a fantastic experience. Jarrett’s piano is reproduced with an abundance of scale and texture. Along with the applause, his signature grunting hangs in the air, each in a separate layer. Even the stand-up bass is finely depicted, but the lowest overtones are absent.

Mixing it up with Miles, Coltrane, and other jazz legends reveals the same findings. Drums are full of dynamics, never plodding or obtuse. Tonality this good would be highly impressive for a $1,000 pair of speakers. It’s out of this world at this price.

Keeping Pace with 2012

Yes, $400 buys a smaller pair of speakers than it did in 1978. However, the value proposition that Definitive Technology’s Studio Monitor 45s offer goes off the chart. A two-way system, the SM45 represents the smallest speaker in Def Tech’s newest StudioMonitor series. With the grille off, the glossy front baffle looks smashing, revealing a 5.25-inch woofer and the same 1-inch dome tweeter featured in the SM55 and SM65. The MDF cabinets are covered in a black vinyl rather than a fancy veneer—a necessary albeit completely acceptable compromise. These babies are still highly pleasing, and it’s great to see that the extra few bucks that could have been spent on a fancier enclosure were instead put into sound-producing components.

Thanks to a 90db sensitivity rating, the SM45 works well with low-powered amplifiers and is equally at ease with solid-state, class D, or tube amplification. Our cache of vintage budget receivers from Pioneer, Nakamichi, and Sansui all turn in great performances with these speakers, confirming that an iPod owner could assemble a very capable system built around the SM45s for about $600.

Whether you’re just entering the world of hi-fi, or building a compact second system, a pair of SM45s is the best $400 investment you’ll ever make. These are speakers you’ll still enjoy in your garage 30 years from now. And think of the cool memories that will go along with the journey.

I like these speakers so much that I want you to have a pair.  Definitive Technologies has agreed to give us three pairs of SM45s to pass on to our readers, so when you have a moment, head to and follow the instructions.  Perhaps you’ll be one of our three lucky readers that wins a pair!

Definitive Technology Studio Monitor 45 Speakers

MSRP: $399/pair

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)

Estelon XC Loudspeakers

It’s been a year and a half since we penned the world’s first review of the Estelon XA speakers, the premier product from Alfred and Partners. Since then, the lineup has expanded to five products, including models below and above the XA, not the least of which is the XC. The latter utilizes Accuton ceramic drivers. They’re combined with designer Alfred Vassilkov’s proprietary crossover designs and wrapped into a sexy enclosure shape, also unique to Estelon, which involves a marble-based composite material.

The XC’s alluring design stops enclosure vibration cold. Between the distinctive composite material’s high density and undulating shape, which eliminates standing waves and resonance, the XCs provide a striking clarity. You merely hear what the drivers are capable of producing—and the sound is indeed very, very good.

The XC is designed for smaller rooms than its three larger siblings, yet the tonal quality is essentially the same. How? The XC employs the same 1.2-inch tweeter as the XA and X Centro, and the XC’s smaller stand-mounted enclosure uses a pair of the 7-inch drivers similar to the ones in the larger speakers.

Having just spent some quality time with the XAs at the Munich High End Show, my memory of the company’s house sound is extremely fresh. These speakers boast incredibly low distortion; they have clarity reminiscent of a pair of full-range electrostatic speakers. Vide, the detail present on “The Seeker” from the Crash Test Dummies’ And God Shuffled His Feet simply staggers. A huge soundstage extends well beyond the speakers, and the multiple overdubs are easily laid bare.

Small Speakers, Big Sound

The tonal purity and low-level detail rendered by the XCs allow them to shine on any densely packed recording—electronic or acoustic. Brian Eno-like in nature, Dave Stewart’s Greetings From the Gutter features endless layers of miniscule electronic sounds that hover out in front of the speakers and bounce off the walls in all directions. When the music is experienced through the XCs, a full-range electrostatic speaker comes to mind, confirming the precision of the XC’s crossover network, even in the critical vocal range.

Throwing a piano-and-violin torture test at the XCs doesn’t cause them to blush. “Poco Adagio,” from the Jung Trio’s Dvorak Trio In F-Minor, Op.65, features both instruments together. Despite the record’s lack of bass, the XCs prove the equal of a massive full-range system, reproducing the record’s width and height all the while keeping the three players perfectly separated in the recording space. Get this wrong and the violins become screechy. The XCs shine, especially near the end of the track, where passages become decidedly more fortissimo.

Using the XCs in medium- and small-sized rooms yields great results. Remember, all four Estelon models are designed to produce an almost identical sound in terms of quality, tone, and timbre. It’s just that the smaller XC is optimized for rooms of lesser volume, and in which the large floorstanding model doesn’t make sense.

The room gain from my small (11 x 17 foot) living room convinced me there’s more than enough low-frequency extension to comfortably play any kind of music. Even bass-heavy tracks, like those from Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum, enjoy enough weight to forgo the thought of a subwoofer. Unless you are trying to spin hip-hop discs at club level, the XC will impress. And while formidable in my dedicated listening room (16 x 25 feet), the XC lacks the last bit of the XA’s dynamic punch, staying true to Estelon’s design brief.

Perfect Pace

The speakers’ ability to keep musical pace intact is excellent. Of course, the freedom from coloration (both driver and box coloration) makes vocal recordings a thrill—whether it’s the gravely warble of Elvis Costello or irreproachable tone of Ella Fitzgerald.  The five-part harmonies on the Fairfield Four’s Standing In The Safety Zone epitomizes the XC’s capabilities at handling wide dynamic swings just as all five vocalists remain distinct from one another.

Low distortion is another of the model’s outstanding virtues. Regardless of the music, these speakers return breathtaking clarity. While they have no problems rocking out, acoustic-music aficionados will be astonished at their tonal purity. Even the most densely packed test tracks are charming, suggesting that many of our recordings may not be as limited as we often suspect. We just need a bit more resolution to delineate the information contained within.

While the XC cannot play as loudly as the XA in a large room, the additional 2db of sensitivity (89db for the XA versus 91db for the XC) makes for a better range of amplification choices. The XA performs admirably with 45 watts per channel of vacuum-tube power, yet more power is always better. In contrast, the XC is well matched with amplifiers in the 50-75 watt range. It’s even a charming partner, albeit at slightly lower levels, with Unison Research’s 25-watts-per-channel S6 amplifier.

Looking for extremely high quality in a moderately sized space? The XC needs to be on your short list. You can start with modest amplification, and upgrade to the world’s finest gear without needing to trade-in the XC on anything else.


Highly resolving without being discordant, the XCs put you right at the front of the presentation. My listening position in the main room is more intimate than with the XAs. The XCs work well about seven feet apart (tweeter center to tweeter center), and my listening position is eight feet back. They produce an awesome soundstage in all three dimensions. It almost feels as if my couch is inside a gigantic pair of headphones!

Unless you need to reproduce the last bit of sub-40Hz bass at earthquake levels, the XC handles every kind of fare with equal aplomb—from electronica with SBTRKT and Fuel Box or heavy rock, ala Black Sabbath. The recently remastered CD of Paranoid is a treat when cranking the XCs to their limits on “Fairies Wear Boots.” There’s a wall of screaming guitars, but no exhaustion from the speakers. And the big beats in Fuel Box’s “One Day” do not detract from the vocal stylings or delicate percussion tracks laid over synthesizers.

Just like that of the XA, the XC’s slightly forward tonal balance—combined with its ability to resolve detail—needs to be considered when choosing the proper amplifier.  These speakers will show off what your upward components can and cannot do. Naturally, your personal taste will determine amplification selection, as will any speaker capable of such high performance. If possible, audition the XCs with your amplifier.

Setup Simplicity

The XCs are carefully packed in foam-lined flight cases, with integral stands. Ask a friend to help you unpack each of the 110-pound (49kg) speakers and move them to their initial spot in your listening room. From there, fine-tuning should be a cakewalk. Akin to an electrostatic speaker, careful attention to rake angle—easily adjustable with the spikes in the stands—and distance from the rear wall afford the best balance of low-frequency energy and image size.

Our test speakers arrived after logging plenty of hours, so they were immediately ready to go. My experience with the Accuton drivers in other speakers, as well as the XA, dictates that Estelon models need at least a few hundred hours to sound their best, especially in the low-frequency range. Their extremely low distortion triggers one other caveat: The ceramic drivers exhibit barely any cone breakup, so there’s a small margin between driving them to distortion and driving them to damage. Fortunately, they play at high levels quite comfortably, so only the most overzealous users need worry.

Such small cautions aside, the Estelon XC provides fantastic performance in a compact shape. Suitable for most rooms, these speakers are highly revealing and make for an excellent cornerstone for a no-compromise system. Enthusiastically recommended.

Estelon XC Loudspeakers

MSRP: $22,900/pair (stands included)


Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SP/TriPlanar/ Lyra Atlas
Digital Source dCS Paganini stack    Sooloos Control 15
Preamplifier ARC REF 5SE    Burmester 011
Power Amplifier ARC REF 150    Burmester 911 Mk. 3    Pass XA200.5
Cable Cardas Clear
Power Running Springs Maxim & Dmitri
Accessories SRA Scuttle rack    Audio Desk Systeme Record Cleaner    Furutech DeMag and DeStat

Sonus Faber Elipsa SE

There is nothing better than having your cake and eating it too.  Few speakers personify this idiom like those from Sonus faber—they are stunning, even when your system is off.  And the minute the speakers deliver music, whether analog or digital, you are immediately transported to a place where you can forget about the gear, your troubles and whatever else comes to mind, and immerse yourself in the music.

First, full disclosure: This reviewer is biased.  While many of us claim to want a “straight wire with gain,” or “the whole truth, warts and all,” I can’t honestly say I subscribe to either of these philosophies 100% of the time.  Maybe I could if all music was perfectly captured and flawlessly recorded—but we all know it’s not.  Being a lover of panel speakers, electrostats in particular (and a closet lover of SET/single-driver systems), I value coherence most of all.  I don’t give a damn how dynamic a speaker is. If it sounds like the music is coming from a separate woofer, tweeter and midrange, the speaker falls down my list rather quickly.

A warm, syrupy and ultimately colored speaker doesn’t do it for me either.  Such an overly romantic-sounding speaker is as equally boring to me as a hyperdynamic, ruthlessly revealing speaker. Sure, both make for exciting demo sessions, but they always end up being less entertaining after you’ve lived with said speakers for an extended period of time.

The speakers that always hold my long-term interest are those rare few that achieve a balance of high resolution without being harsh, and a high degree of tonal richness without coming across overly colored or slow.  Those of you old enough to remember taking pictures with a film camera might remember the 81A filter, which offered a slight touch of warmth yet was never distracting, and had the ability to make color slides look richer and more vibrant than reality.  Speakers that top my list must sound great regardless of decibel output and, while we’re making demands, they should not rely entirely on cables and amplifiers to achieve greatness. They must also be relatively simple to set up.  How’s that for fussy?

Enter the Elipsa SEs

I’ve always been a fan of Sonus faber’s speakers, even though the Italian manufacturer’s older models have always been slightly romantic and forgiving. But things at Sonus faber have been quietly changing as of late, and its current models retain the mystique of their predecessors while adding an abundance of resolution to the mix.

If you’ve been envious of the $45,000/pair Sonus faber Stradivari speakers but can’t make the financial leap, the Elipsa SE is a bargain at $22,900/pair.  For all but the top percentile of the truly obsessed, this is the last pair of speakers you need to buy.  The SE model offers an upgraded crossover over the standard Elipsa, and incorporates the same tweeter from the Stradivari—a modest yet worthwhile upgrade from the $20,000/pair Elipsa.

We can discuss crossover slopes, sensitivity and driver-magnet structures all day and, while that is a fascinating story to tell, when you unpack the Elipsa SEs, it’s a sensual experience; not a scientific one.  The true aficionado will appreciate the painstaking effort that goes into every step of the Elipsa SE’s construction.  Whether admiring the hand-coated lacquer of the finish, the leather front and rear baffles or even the finely machined binding posts, you quickly realize that there are no “off-the-shelf” parts used in a Sonus faber speaker.

As anxious as you will probably be to get your new speakers up and running, take a few minutes to bask in the unrivaled craftsmanship that went into their construction.

Versatile Performers

Cueing up Chicago’s “While the City Sleeps” from Chicago V (via the 24/192 HDtracks file) immediately shows off the refined high end of the Elipsa SEs, as the high hat shimmers slightly to the left of the sound stage with seemingly endless decay.  The instant the horns enter the mix with full force it’s clear that these speakers have dynamics to spare.  Giving the volume control a major push to the right—reaching near-insane levels—the Elipsa SEs do not lose their composure: The enormous three-dimensional sound stage remains large and focused.

Slowing the pace somewhat with the title track of Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage (also available as a 24/192 download from HDtracks) portrays an even larger soundstage—now the Elipsa SEs completely disappear in the room, as the drums linger to the left of centerstage, with Freddie Hubbard blasting out on trumpet at the far left, and Hancock’s piano diffusely rendered as it moves gently up and back from center stage.

Combined with a full compliment of Audio Research’s Reference electronics and a dCS Paganini stack, one wonders if the presentation could be any better.  This is what real music sounds like.  While much of this impact can be attributed to the first-order crossover network and wideband drivers required to successfully implement this kind of design—a result of exhausting driver development to achieve perfection—that is only part of the story. It is the integration of everything that makes a Sonus faber speaker system truly more than just a sum of the individual parts.

Sonus Faber’s elliptic enclosure design results in what they call “Virtual 2pi radiation,” which also does a fantastic job disguising the mass of the speaker in such a svelte cabinet, resulting in a high performance speaker that is easy to set up in your room.

Even casual placement results in a wide and deep soundstage.  However, a bit of extra attention to the rake angle of the Elipsas allows them to achieve their maximum performance when set to perfection.  The resulting time alignment of the drivers adds to the coherence and the speakers literally disappear in the room.  A calibrated level (or iPhone app) will help you get both speakers tipped back exactly the same amount.

A great many speaker manufacturers strive to make their speaker enclosures as free from resonance as possible, but it almost always ends up making the speaker sound overdamped.  Listen to the sound a bass drum makes as the mallet bounces from the drumhead: There’s a liveliness to it, with resonance and sustain, regardless of whether it’s Tommy Aldridge or Art Blakey playing.  That’s the life force of a bass drum, which is, sadly, often lost in a speaker (or, for that matter, an entire system) that is overdamped.

An instrument’s resonant signature is much like a person’s voiceprint: Each one is unique, which allows us to discern the difference between violins or electric guitars.  The Elipsa SE preserves this delicate balance.  Yet, even with music created entirely in the world of the studio, the Elipsa SE holds it together seamlessly, no matter how complex the fare.  A long listening session of albums from Frank Zappa and German bands Can and Faust proves that, even at high volume, the speakers can play densely packed music without a soundstage collapse.  Faust’s “Picnic on a Frozen River” from the Faust IV album is full of multiple soft, discordant bits that remain anchored in the left-to-right as well as in the front-to-back soundstage at high volume. Zappa’s classic “Peaches En Regalia” offers a similarly exciting experience, with synthesizer riffs flying around my listening chair, just as it does when listening through great headphones.

Moving into the 21st century, Playing Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy Reconfigured reveals no weaknesses in the Elipsa SE, nor any sign of fatigue.  Even though this speaker has a low frequency specification of 35 Hz, they are well up to task of hitting this album’s the deep bass grooves.  And the high sensitivity of these speakers will not tax your amplifier, which adds to the dynamic realism that they offer.

The Elipsa SEs perform equally well at low volume, still easily disappearing into the room like mini-monitors.  Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 performed by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble shows the delicacy that these speakers are capable of, as well as the tonal purity.

Very Amplifier-Friendly

With a wide range of amplifiers at my disposal—solid-state, tube and class D amps, ranging from a pair of 20-watt 845 SET monoblocks all the way up to the mighty Pass Labs’ XA200.5 monoblocks—all were able to drive the Elipsa SEs without difficulty.  Granted, each amplifier imposed its own sonic personality on the presentation, which complements the high resolution that these speakers offer. But still, every variation on the theme remained thoroughly enjoyable.

Thanks to a sensitivity of 91 db per watt, the Elipsa SE is comfortable with the 35 watts per channel that the average EL34-based tube amplifier can provide, but because the speakers have a maximum power handling of 300 watts, they will absolutely crank if you have enough high-quality power on tap.

Driven to ear-shredding levels (by the XA200.5 monoblocks) with Mudhoney’s Superfuzz Bigmuff, the speakers revealed their true gloriousness.  The only distortion present was that of the amplifiers in the recording studio.  Following this up with the Pixies’ Tromp Le Monde and ending with Explosions in the Sky’s The Earth is Not a Cold, Dead Place is perhaps a bit off the path of the lute that Sonus faber mentions on their website, but it leads to the most important aspect of these speakers: They are unflappable.

That Bias Again

After giving the Elipsa SEs a major workout with about 15 different amplifiers of all genres, I must confess two things: There was no combination that turned in a bad performance and, being the hopeless romantic that I am, I was seduced completely when combining these speakers with a few of my favorite tube amplifiers.

Now that Audio Research is part of the Fine Sounds corporate umbrella that owns Sonus faber, it is no surprise that the Audio Research Reference electronics are a fantastic match for these speakers.  Yet, whether I was using the PrimaLuna DiaLogue 7 monoblocks, the Octave Jubilee Mono monoblocks or the Balanced Audio Technology VK-150s monoblocks, it was tough to get any work done while listening to these speakers.  The massive soundstage and dreamy midrange sent me back to the record rack repeatedly and many listening sessions ended in the wee hours.

But is the Elipsa SE Right for You?

That’s the answer to the $22,900 question, of course.  This is a pretty tall stack of twenty-dollar bills to spend on a pair of speakers, but few others exist at this price point that approach the Elipsa SE’s level of performance.  And even fewer exist that are this gorgeous.  But I am of the belief that life’s too short to have ugly speakers in your living room. As it turns out, I am not alone.  In an informal poll, the Elipsa SEs have the highest spousal-acceptance factor of any speaker we’ve ever reviewed, as well as the highest interest among non-audiophiles of either gender.

If you want a perfect fusion of acoustic purity and aesthetic beauty, these are the speakers you’ve been waiting for.  The truly tough decision will be whether to acquire the Elipsa SEs or go all the way to the Strads.

Many audio pundits cling to the philosophy that the source is everything in a system, and that is sound advice.  However, I find the speakers to be the biggest variable in a system—they have to integrate with your room and those you share it with, so they are often the highest hurdle to jump.  These speakers are so easy to drive, you would have little trouble starting your journey with modestly priced amplification and avail yourself to a new experience as your budget permits system upgrades.

About 15% smaller in physical dimension and with only one 10-inch woofer (rather than the two in the Strads), the Elipsa SE lends itself more to the average listening room.  As Sumiko VP of Sales Norbert Schmeid mentions, “While the Stradavari is ultimately capable of more performance, the Elipsa is an easier speaker to set up because of the single woofer.” And, at about 100 pounds each, you can move them around your listening room with relatively minimal effort.

Either way, you’ll get your money’s worth—and then some. Don’t be surprised to see these speakers in our awards issue later this year.

The Sonus Faber Elipsa SE

MSRP:  $22,900/pair  (Factory) (US distributor)


Digital Source dCS Paganini    Sooloos Control 15    Aurender S10
Analog Source AVID Acutus Reference SE/SME V/Lyra Atlas
Preamplifier ARC REF 5SE    Burmester 011    Robert Koda K-10
Amplifier ARC REF 150    Burmester 911    Pass Labs XA200.5
Phonostage ARC REF Phono 2SE
Cable Cardas Clear     AudioQuest Sky

A Three-Letter Word For Fun: MAD

If I had to make a bet, I’d put my money on the Brits taking the prize for understatement.

Unpacking the 1920 loudspeakers from British manufacturer MAD (for “My Audio Design”), it’s tough not to have an internal dialog that goes something like, “Two and a half grand for these?  They are mad!”  But, looking past the relatively simple-looking box speakers, one soon notices gorgeously mitered corners and an exceptional attention to detail paid on behalf of the craftsmen behind these.  Hmmm.  Some understated British artistry, perhaps?  I take the necessary photos and roll the speakers into listening room two, which, at 13 feet by 16 feet, is perhaps even a bit on the large side for a pair of small speakers—truly mini-monitors, in this case.  The next thought that comes to mind is “LS3/5a clone,” until I turn the speaker around and see a rear-facing port.

At $2,650 per pair, the 1920s are towards the high end of the price scale for this category.  Their obvious competitors are the KEF LS50 ($1,499/pair), which we haven’t reviewed yet; the Harbeth P3ESR ($2,200/pair); and the Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a V2 ($1,999/pair).  A mint pair of original LS3/5a speakers can command up to $2,000 per pair.  While the originals do have a certain vintage charm, they are notably woolly sounding in the world of 21st-century monitors.  Colleen Cardas Imports is handling US distribution and now has three dealers, with more on the way.

A mini-monitor, properly optimized in a small room, is one of audio’s guilty pleasures.  Paired with a great amplifier, these speakers will provide ample bass quantity and well-above-average bass quality, going a long way to convince you that you won’t ever need a subwoofer.  But don’t forgo good stands, as they are essential to getting the maximum output from the 1920s.  Just place these on a pair of high-mass stands (sand filled Sound Anchors are my choice) after applying your favorite sticky substance to couple the speakers to said stands, and expect to be wowed.

Jumping Right In

Auditioning the 1920s begins with the Zombies’ classic, “Time of the Season.”  What better way to audition a British speaker than with some of the best of the British Invasion?  Immediately, the spatial characteristics of these speakers reveal a massive soundstage in the small room, with things clearly delineated and with solid bass—and rock-solid pace.  The added dynamics of the original mono record is an absolute blast with these speakers.  Rod Argent’s keys leap from the speakers.  When mated to the Conrad Johnson MV-50C1 power amplifier, the 1920s confirm the manufacturer’s spec sheet:  These little speakers are incredibly easy to drive.  Even the 20-watt-per-channel Carver Black Magic amplifier has no problem playing these speakers to maddening levels.  (Pardon the pun.)

Ry Cooder’s light touch on the acoustic guitar at the beginning of “The Very Thing That Will Make You Rich (Makes Me Poor),” from the Bop Till You Drop album, hovers just above the speakers, with Cooder well out in front of them.  Cat Power’s “Nothin’ But Time,” from Sun, her current album, has a more modern feel, laden with weighty synth bass riffs, again allowing the 1920s to sound so much larger than they seem capable.  Closing your eyes to concentrate on the presentation, it’s easy to think you are listening to much bigger speakers, only to open your eyes and find this pair of tiny audio morsels before you.  An equally spacious presentation is had with Little Village’s “Don’t Think About Her When You’re Trying to Drive.”

Tonality + Dynamics = Bliss

The performance of the 1920s is especially excellent during playback of a slew of acoustic standards.  But, while the speakers are not as rolled-off sounding on the top end as either the Harbeths or the vintage LS3/5as on hand, they are not quite as extended as the Penaudio Cenya or Dynaudio Confidence C1 IIs that I have here for comparison.  (To be fair, the Cenyas and C1 IIs are considerably more expensive.)  With the 1920s, it’s a nice, gentle roll-off, which will not be noticed on all but the best audiophile recordings and that, more often than not, goes a long way at making digital files and budget solid-state amplifiers considerably more listenable.

The only time I found the tonal characteristic of the 1920s a bit too soft for my taste was when using certain vintage tube amplifiers.  With the Dynaco ST-70 or Harman Kardon A500 integrated amp, for example, even digital files come across as slightly dull.  But, having drawn that line in the sand, the combination of vintage tube amplification and 320-Kb/sec MP3 files sounds much better than it has a right to.

All things considered, the extra efficiency, slam and bass weight are what separate the MAD 1920s from their comparably priced brethren.  You won’t mistake these for a pair of floorstanders, but they open up and breathe so much more than the other small speakers we’ve experienced at this price level.  While the Harbeth and Stirlings both present a benign enough load to drive with a 20-watt amplifier, they are still rated in the range of 83 to 84 dB—which means that a low-power amp can’t deliver the dynamic peaks like it can with a speaker rated at 90 dB.

Crazy Imaging

If you are new to the small British monitor thing, the sonic image that the 1920s present will spoil almost everything else for you.  From the first tap of the hi-hat on the title track to Donovan’s Mellow Yellow, the term “pinpoint imaging” takes on a new meaning, especially if you dim the lights just a bit to keep your eyes from sending visual information to your brain that might otherwise distract processing power from your auditory nerves.  Donovan sounds as if he’s singing just in front of your face, with his overdubs floating in a sea of handclaps and horns.  And the separation between the flute and the oboe in “Jennifer, Juniper” is magnificent.

Maybe it’s the stunning imaging that these old studio records present, or perhaps it’s the strong British heritage thing, but I just kept going back for more British Invasion records to play on these speakers.  I swear I was having flashbacks during Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man.”  But then, a brief detour spent on a number of Duran Duran and Thompson Twins tracks from the ’80s transitioned me back to the 21st century—and it was still good.

On the deep-bass side of the musical universe, Dungen and Dr. Dre are both off the menu at all but modest levels.  You can only cheat physics so far, and the 1920s pull off a major sonic feat already.  But heavy rock and hip-hop are simply not a match for these speakers, should you really want to crank it up.  But I’m guessing that, if this stuff happens to be at the top of your music menu, you’re not looking at mini-monitors anyway.  To use an old audiophile cliché, the 1920s are mostly guilty of omission.  They remind me of a first-generation VW Golf GTI or Mazda MX5—they’re tons of fun to drive between 20 and 80 mph, which is where we’re stuck living most of the time.  But if you have a modest amplifier, a medium- to small-sized room and few pipe-organ records in your collection, you won’t even know what you’re missing.

Smart is the New Sexy

A quick visual once-over of the 1920s and you might just pass them by.  While the small box is well executed, these aren’t head-turners.  But inside it’s a completely different story—an abundance of high-grade audiophile parts lurk: ultra-pure silver internal wiring on the tweeter, plus point-to-point wiring with equally zooty copper wire.  Best of all, these are hand assembled in the UK, with all components hand tested and matched before the construction process begins.

Don’t think of the MAD 1920 as a clone of the LS3/5a, nor as an update or replacement for it.  It will just raise your dander.  But do pay close attention to them—they are sleepers.  And don’t let the understated box fool you.  These speakers are the new standard for small monitors.

The MAD 1920 loudspeakers

MSRP: £1,500   (US pricing, $2,650)

US Distributor:  Colleen Cardas Imports


Preamplifier                Burmster 011

Power Amplifier         Conrad Johnson MV-50C1, Pass Aleph 3, Carver Black Magic 20.

Analog Source             Rega RP6/Exact, SME 10/Sumiko Blackbird

Digital Source              Sooloos Control 15, Aurender S10, Light Harmonic DAC

Cable                           Cardas Clear

Accessories                 GIK Room Treatments, Audience aR6-TSS Power Line Conditioner, Furutech DeMag and DeStat, Audio Desk Systeme RCM

Meridian M6 Active Speakers

When was the last time you set up an entire music system in under five minutes?  I’m guessing never.

In case haven’t had the opportunity to use one, the Meridian Sooloos digital music server, now called Meridian Digital Media System, it is by far the worlds easiest to use – and I’ve used them all. The larger and more diverse your music collection, the more manageable it is, with all your music right at your fingertips, allowing you to sort through it and ultimately listen to it on multiple levels.
For those in the choir that I’m already preaching to, have you tried a pair of Meridian active speakers?

Listening to the M6 speakers connected to a Meridian Media Core 200, which holds up to 2000 CDs in a small box, barely larger than a Mac Mini, I ponder just how far the British hifi industry has come in the 55 years since my trusty Quad 57’s hit the scene.

In the time it took my next door neighbor to grab refreshments from the refrigerator, the M6s were set up and playing music, in this case “Egypt by Air,” courtesy of the Bombay Dub Orchestra.  While there are multiple connection options, depending on which Meridian front end you care to use, all that is needed between the Media Core 200 and the right speaker is a length of RJ-45 cable.  Home Depot cable will do, but I suggest the Meridan SpeakerLink cable, because it’s not that much more, is expertly terminated and is very thin, fitting into your décor very unobtrusively.  It is available from your Meridian dealer in lengths from .5m to 15m. String one more length from the right speaker to the left and plug the two power cords into the wall.  Done.  Those using the Audio Core will connect left and right channels separately, as in a standard hifi system.

Always curious to what those not of the audiophile brotherhood think about the latest hifi gear, I made it a point to have a few extra guests over to peruse the M6/Media Core 200 system while it was here. It was precisely the hit I anticipated – and then some.  Most of my friends know I’m a bit off the deep end, but the combination of these speakers and 2,000 CD’s, all controllable by an iPad proved too much for even the most anti hifi person to resist.  Not a single wife or girlfriend uttered the four word death knell to all things audio, “not in my house.”

Beautifully Built

These speakers epitomize high style and high quality. Barely a foot in diameter at the bottom, gently taper to about four inches at the top, their cylindrical shape covered in a tight black fabric, with a brushed aluminum top cap.  While the 5-½ inch woofer faces downward, the full range driver (crossed over at 200 Hz) does face forward, so this is not an omnidirectional speaker, though it does have very wide dispersion.  The small Meridian logo on the base indicates the front of the speaker and which way you should aim it. A slight bit of toe in worked well in room two, with the speakers about 8 feet apart.  The cabinet is made from a strong yet lightweight composite material, very similar to what Meridian uses for their F80 and M80 compact audio systems.  The M6s are built at Meridian’s facility in Cambridgeshire.

The M6 utilizes Class D amplification rather than the Class A, discrete amplification in the other models, making the compact shape possible. The M6s tip the scale at just under 40 pounds, so they are easy to set up and move about your listening space.  These speakers also lack the Meridian System Remote of the larger speakers, and separate SPDIF digital input.  Speaker Link is the only option for the M6, limiting source components to other Meridian products.

Quick and easy, yet highly versatile

Once plugged into the wall, and wired thusly, the band at the top of the M6s glows with a medium blue tone, indicating they are powered up and in standby mode.  Upon pushing play, the glow turns to a soft white.  With nary a fancy wire product in sight, the M6s delight.  The traditional audiophile might suspect heresy, but the music lover will be delighted.

A number of system options await you.  One of Meridian’s Media Cores or their new Audio Core 200, that looks like a compact stereo receiver, adding DSP speaker control, bass and treble level controls and the ability to add analog sources, like the output of your television or even a turntable. (Via outboard phono stage)  Like the larger DSP series of Meridian speakers, the Audio Core 200 lets you optimize LF output in accordance with where you have the speakers placed in the room, however, the Media Core 200 does not offer this functionality. For those with a Meridian Digital Media System system already installed, the M6s can be connected in another location with network access via the Media Source 200, which allows complete access to your music library, yet running a separate data stream.

This makes it a snap to indulge your musical tastes in one part of the house, while the rest of the family is enjoying something else in the living room.  All controllable via iPod, iPhone or a networked computer, though maximum functionality is only available with the Control 15, or an iPod, via a free app on the App Store.  This lets you scroll through your music by album cover, as you no doubt remember it best.

Serious ability

Meridian’s DSP speakers have always offered phenomenal bass response and these slender cabinets to not disappoint.  Cranking up the volume control as Rory Gallagher’s “Brute Force and Ignorance” hits the play queue reveals that the M6s ability to rock the house.  A series of heavy tracks leaves the M6s unfettered and prove that they can play at considerable volume without listener fatigue. The dense bass line on David Byrne and St. Vincent’s latest Love This Giant gives pause that these diminutive speakers can offer so much heft.

Sampling the Bad Plus’ For All I Care reveals how well the M6 provides room filling sound at low to modest volume.  This mixture of piano and acoustic bass is rendered across the soundstage convincingly, reinforcing the way the M6 paints an acoustic landscape – this is not a “pinpoint imaging” experience, but somewhat more diffuse. More like a pair of Magnepans than a pair of mini monitors in this sense.  The more reflective your room is, the more the presentation extends beyond the speaker boundaries.

The low crossover point lets the Meridian full range driver do much of the work, so the critical midrange frequencies are not split up. This adds to the effortless character the M6 provides, highly noticeable with vocal recordings.  Whether listening to Joni Mitchell or Frank Sinatra, the lack of midrange grain and phase anomalies usually caused by a crossover network in this range is a treat.  It helps with acoustic instruments as well – both piano and violin shine played through the M6.

Thanks to their wide dispersion and powerful LF output, a pair of M6s is easy to place in the listening room and is not as position specific as many other speakers we have auditioned. If you’re looking a pair of high performance speakers that go with the couch, these are the ones.

Practically a complete system

At first blush, $9,000 for a pair of speakers is more than a casual expense, but remember, the M6s are much more than a pair of speakers; they include a pair of stereo power amplifiers (150 x 2 for the woofers 100 x 2 for the full range drivers), an active DSP crossover network, a DAC, and a preamplifier.  Not to mention all of the ancillary cables that you don’t have to purchase to make it go.  Perhaps best of all, you won’t have to look at all of that stuff in your room.  You could easily spend a healthy percentage of the M6 price tag on three pairs of interconnects, a pair of speaker cables, a few mains cables and an equipment rack, perhaps more – and you’d still need to buy a system!

If you are a traditional audiophile that relishes an altar consisting of a large rack full of gear, a massive loom of cables, and all the anxiety that surrounds this affair, the Meridian M6 speakers will not fulfill your requirements.  In the past, “lifestyle” has always been a risqué word when applied to audio, suggesting B & O at best and Bose at worst, yet Meridian produces a winner here, proving sculptural beauty and cutting edge audio performance can indeed coexist. However, if the concept of a music system that doesn’t intrude upon your environment is appealing, look no further.

I urge you to visit your Meridian dealer and avail yourself to just how effortless this system can be.

The Meridian M6 Active DSP Loudspeakers

MSRP: $9,000

Associated Components:  Sooloos Media Core 200, Sooloos Control 15

Penaudio Cenya Speakers

Reporting on the Porsche/Burmester event for Issue 46’s cover story put me at a dinner table with a new group of writers. Instead of the usual cronies from high-end audio, I encountered a pack of automotive journalists. A staff member from Automobile magazine commented that, on a recent outing with a handful of incredibly wealthy car collectors, he asked everyone the same question: What is the most fun car you own? He became fascinated to discover that, even though the owners all possess stables of exotic machinery, five of the six respondents named the Mini Cooper S Convertible.

Many of my audiophile buddies express a similar sentiment concerning loudspeakers. There’s something enchanting about a pair of small speakers in a modest-sized room. Often, the famous LS3/5A enters the conversation. However, as magic as it is when paired with small-scale music, that speaker does not rock. But greatness is possible in a small box. Modern drivers, computer analysis, and crossover technology make such a goal all the more attainable.

Enter the Penaudio Cenya. Taking up only half a cubic foot (6.4 x 11.2 x 12.6 inches/163 x 280 x 315mm) of space, the tiny two-way uses a 6-inch Seas Excel woofer and 3/4-inch Seas soft-dome tweeter in a ported enclosure. Don’t be scared by the $4,000 price. Small enclosures and understated elegance are Penaudio hallmarks, and the cost is warranted.

For those seeking wife-acceptance factor, look no further. The Cenyas integrate with practically any décor. Yes, getting the best bass response requires a pair of stands with high mass, and placing the tweeters near ear height is essential. A pair of sand-filled Sound Anchors stands works perfectly in both my listening rooms. My smaller 11 x 17-foot living room provides slightly more bass reinforcement, but surprisingly, does not offer the big sound of my dedicated room.

Simple Setup

Setting up the speakers by ear resulted with the speakers landing in the classic equilateral arrangement. In my 16 x 25-foot listening room, the Cenyas are almost seven feet out in the room on the long wall, and seven feet apart. Approximately 15 degrees of toe-in yields the best balance between imaging and high-frequency smoothness, and yes, the Cenyas boast excellent off-axis response. Placed well away from sidewalls, these speakers image like panels. With the last octave of bass response diminished, the Cenyas are easier to position, particularly since they don’t excite room resonances in the manner achieved by a speaker that goes down to the mid-20hz region.

In terms of matching, the 30wpc Unison Research S6 tube integrated amplifier and its deep, rich presentation complements the Cenya’s large soundstage. Unlike the Penaudio Serenades I used for a few years, and which never really matched with a tube amplifier, the Cenyas perform admirably with glass. Given their 86db sensitivity rating, I suggest a minimum of 30wpc, although an amplifier in the 45-70wpc rating is even better. Select tube amplifiers at my disposal from CJ, Audio Research, PrimaLuna, and Grant Fidelity all reveal a warm, friendly sound via the Cenyas, with excellent bass control and supple high end.

However, power rules the day with these mighty marvels, and the heavens part upon inserting an Audio Research REF 150 into the system. Remember, though, that power alone doesn’t get the job done. Think quality. Trying a few budget, high-powered Class D amplifiers makes for a lifeless presentation. The Cenyas claim a very neutral, natural, and lifelike tonal balance—but also offer high resolution. Hence, distinctions between different source components are readily discerned.

Switching between the ARC REF 150, Burmester 911 mk. 3, and Octave Jubilee monoblocks, it’s as effortless to pinpoint the particular characteristics between these top-tier amplifiers as it is when they’re feeding speakers that cost considerably more. Clearly, something special is going on in Finland. Chalk it up to Penaudio designer Sami Pentilla, who loves to rock out. You’ll never hear Patricia Barber in his room at a hi-fi gathering. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, as we listened to Rammstein loudly in his space, he smiled and said, “My speakers must have natural sound, but they have to rock.”

Mad Bass Skills

Don’t be thrown off by that small woofer. Given the size of the speaker from which it emanates, the bass line in the title track from Big Head Todd and the Monsters’ Sister Sweetly album produces enormous bass of almost-shocking dimensions. No one-note wonder, the Cenya does equally well with acoustic bass. Scott LaFaro’s bass playing on Bill Evans’ classic Portrait in Jazz provides elegant lines that often feel more like lead runs than backdrops. The Cenyas excel at capturing the texture, as well as the body, of the acoustic bass parts.

Torturing the Cenyas via the massive beats in Madonna’s latest MDNA prove fruitless until the mighty Burmester 911 amplifier starts working up a sweat. With 350 watts per channel on tap, I was able to produce that awful bottoming sound from the woofer cones. Note, however, that this came at beyond-prudent volume levels. Big synth bass from The System’s “Don’t Stop This Groove,” as well as from a few other 80s favorites, is also rendered with so much weight that you won’t hanker for a subwoofer. Ok, maybe when you blast Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy Revisited, it’s not a bad idea to grab one. Fortunately, the JL Audio Gotham in-wall subwoofer seamlessly mates with the Cenyas, making for a rather stealthy system.

Mighty Mids

Dandy as the Cenyas show with varied program material, midrange remains the mini-monitors’ strong suit. Emphasis is focused on defined placement of musicians and instruments within a soundstage. Ry Cooder’s I, Flathead features a live feel. When Cooder briskly strums his guitar on “My Dwarf is Getting Tired,” you can hear the drumheads rattle. These speakers reproduce the midband in such a transparent way, you’ll forget about your visions of ESLs. And I say this as a happy owner of Quad 57s; the Cenyas have the juice.

All the best audiophile clichés apply to these Penaudio speakers. They paint an enormous sonic canvas extending well beyond the speaker boundaries. Yes, you’ll swear you are listening to larger speakers. Vide, Mobile Fidelity’s brilliant new remaster of Gram Parsons’ GP. The Cenyas capture the pace and air present within this sparse recording. The original CD is flat and lifeless, but the decay-rich MoFi disc feels lush. Vide, the baritone sax on “Cry One More Time For You” leaps right out in front. And, heard via the Cenyas, Parsons and Emmylou Harris’ duet on “We’ll Sweep Out The Ashes in the Morning” gives equal weight to both singers. Lesser speakers leave Harris’ voice fading into the mix.

Dazzling Dynamics

The 24/96 file of Elton John’s Madman Across The Water sounds stunning through the Cenyas. When the barrage of horns kicks in at about 1:37, I got pinned back on the couch, amazed at the drive they muster. Wow, these speakers rock. Transitioning from the slower first half of Jack White’s “Take Me With You When You Go” from Blunderbuss to the song’s raucous second half is painless. White’s signature guitar sound is also reproduced with plenty of grit and texture.

Thanks to the Cenyas’ wide dynamic contrast, the worst recordings now become much more palatable. Even Don Johnson’s Heartbeat sounds pretty good. (Fess up. I know you still have that CD from the 80s.) Getting down with the self-titled Grinderman album, these speakers give up the good stuff the second you hit “play.” The first track, “Get it On,” opens with Nick Cave barking over a larger-than-life distorted guitar out of phase with the rest of the instruments. The Cenyas don’t lose their poise even when cranking this record. The louder you play it, the better it sounds, with the mad guitars burrowing their way into your soul.

Indeed, the speakers deliver an abundance of dynamic contrast and low-level detail, making them just as easy to listen to at low volume. And, as I mentioned earlier, they possess a very natural tonal balance. Violin, banjo, and acoustic bass remain distinctly separate on the title track of Steve Martin’s The Crow: New Songs For Five String Banjo, retaining all the textural properties that make these stringed instruments unique. The violin is particularly tough to get right, yet the Cenyas handle it with aplomb.

Get On Board

The Penaudio Cenya is an absolute delight, no matter the source material. These speakers are limited only by the quality of the electronics with which you mate them. Granted, the Cenyas are not merciless. Your system won’t suck with a $600 integrated amplifier if that’s what you can afford. However, the speakers will constantly improve with better gear, should you jump on the high-speed train to audiophilia.

Fuel the Cenyas with the best electronics you can afford, and you will not be disappointed. It’s not unlike handling a high-performance turbocharged car. If you put low-octane gasoline in the tank, the experience will still be good, but the engine-management system will cut the amount of horsepower delivered to the rear wheels.

Penaudio Cenya Loudspeaker

MSRP:  $4,000 (Factory) (US Importer)


Preamplifier Burmester 011

Power Amplifier Burmester 911 mk. 3, Audio Research REF 150

Digital Source dCS Debussy DAC/Paganini Clock

Analog Source VPI Classic 1/Lyra Kleos/ARC REF Phono 2

Cable Cardas Clear

Accessories SRA Scuttle rack, Furutech DeStat, DeMag, Audio Desk Systeme record cleaner

We Review the Bose 901…

Part One

“No highs, no lows, it must be Bose.” And so the story goes in the wubbulous world of high-end audio. Other than using a green sharpie to get better CD sound, or that guy that calls you on the phone and osmotically makes your system sound better, no greater myth exists in audio today than that of the Bose 901 speakers. Much like Bigfoot, have you even seen a pair of Bose 901 speakers or, better yet, heard them?

Lately, I’ve had several positive encounters with Bose products. My Fiat 500 Sport has a Bose sound system, and yes, it possesses admirable bass extension (so there!) and a wide stereo image from the driver’s seat. I also experienced Bose on a recent trip home from Spain, where I sampled the new Burmester sound system in the latest Porsche 911 Cabriolet, and Porsche was kind enough to fly me home first class. The latter experience came with a pair of Bose Noise Canceling headphones (another product I’d never actually used, but about which I heard plenty of scuttlebutt). I must say, the noise-canceling effect works incredibly well; the first six episodes of “Californication – Season 5” flew by.

The ‘phones claimed decent sound quality and, compared to the little bit of ultimate fidelity they gave up to my $600 IEMs, were worth the noise-canceling effect. I’m thinking of investing in a pair before my next European trip. So that’s two strikes in Bose’s favor.

As TONEAudio is currently running a contest to identify the biggest audiophile myths, I began pondering: How do Bose 901s actually sound? My last memory of the speakers harkens back to a jazz club in my hometown of Milwaukee that actually had the speakers installed into the ceiling by their pedestal bases and powered by a Marantz 4300 quad receiver. Another area venue had their ceiling-mounted 901s powered by a large stack of McIntosh gear. Both systems were pleasant. Not to be outdone, another bar owner installed Magnepan MGIIs from the ceiling, which, coincidentally, ended up being destroyed by a ruckus started by the Milwaukee Rugby Club after a hearty victory. And so it goes.

Double Standards

Good memories aside, if you ask any audiophile, they will unequivocally tell you how much Bose speakers suck, and give you a million reasons why the speakers they own are much, much better. If you dig deep enough, chances are good at least one of these opinionated individuals owns either a pair of Rogers LS3/5as that don’t produce much bass or even a pair of smaller Magnepans. Sure, I love my Maggie 1.7s, but they don’t produce a lot of bass, either, and really need a lot of juice to give their best performance.  And don’t even get me started on single-driver Lowthers. Been there, done that, too.

Now, to further the conversation, ask such expert audiophiles if they have actually heard a pair of contemporary 901s. Are you thinking mythbusting? Me too.

This multi-part article will be a standard review in the sense that we will listen to the Bose 901 speakers in a few different rooms and use a wide range of amplification— from a Pioneer SX-424 vintage receiver all the way up to a full stack of Audio Research Reference components—just as we would with any other speaker evaluation.

And conspiracy theorists, take note. I bought a random pair of 901s via the Web for retail price. I initially tried to contact Bose to see if we could get a review pair, but no one at the PR department would return my call. Hence, there will be less historical data accompanying the review, which is unfortunate, as the speaker is now on its sixth iteration of development and changed somewhat since its introduction in 1968.

Seeing that Bose is a $2 billion-per-year company, it’s doubtful any manufacturer other than perhaps Vandersteen or Magnepan has produced more quantities of a same speaker model. Unless we get a phone call, this will remain an unresolved question.

Service:  Ambiguous to Excellent

A quick call to the Bose store at the local mall reveals that the 901s are “not a regular stock item.” But the sales person tried his hardest to switch me into a top-of-the-line Wave Radio, telling me “no one has big speakers in their home anymore.” He then acquiesced. If I must have a pair of 901s, I can special order them or go directly to the Web site. I do the latter, and about 90 seconds after getting to the home page, a pair of walnut 901s with pedestal bases is on its way. Six days later, the 901s arrive on my doorstep, safe and sound.

So far, so good. The speakers look to be in perfect shape and their fit and finish is excellent for $1,400. At the moment, Bose rates an A+. Next, the listening begins. Will the speakers fall off their pedestals? Stay tuned for Part Two.

Part Two

Setup and Installation

My pair of 901s is set up in the classic fashion on the cool, black metal pedestals that resemble something from the Herman Miller furniture catalog, circa 1960. An Eames lounge chair and an old copy Playboy is all that’s required for the full-on Austin Powers effect. Groovy, baby!

At 35 pounds each, the speakers are easy to manage. However, using them with the metal bases requires wood screws. While the holes are predrilled, you probably won’t utilize them more than a couple times without causing permanent damage to the speaker base. I can’t imagine a company as large as Bose wouldn’t be able to add threaded inserts without raising cost.

The binding posts allow for any kind of speaker cable. Yet if you are considering using your 901s with any kind of upgraded cable, don’t permanently attach the bases until you make a cable commitment. I employed Radio Shack’s 16-gauge speaker wire for the majority of listening sessions.

I used two systems to evaluate the speakers. The first consists of a vintage Pioneer SX-424 with a stock SL-1200 turntable/Grado Red cartridge and a third-generation iPod Classic, modded by Red Wine Audio. The second involves the Sooloos Music Server feeding Wadia’s new 121 decoding computer to the Unison Research S6 vacuum-tube amplifier. At the very end of the sessions, the Pass Labs XA200.5 monoblocks were employed to see just how loud the 901s could play.

Speaker Placement

Much like a pair of Klipschorns, the Bose 901 lends itself to corner placement. Because the majority of the drivers face rearward, placement is the key to fine-tuning the imaging performance.

Putting the speakers closer to room corners exaggerates the reflection and yields the overblown stereo image that perhaps contributed to the popular misinformation associated with Bose. If you are used to the sound of traditional box speakers, 901s—when tightly placed in room corners—sound much larger than life and boast an exaggerated soundstage. They feel like the remnants of a hallucinogenic experience. The 901s’ modest size encourages experimentation, which proves equally successful in my smaller 11 x 17-foot living room as well as in my 16 x 25-foot dedicated room.

My favorite listening position with the 901s seems counterintuitive albeit more traditional in an audiophile sense. Placed about eight feet apart, eight feet from a couch, and about five feet out into the listening room appeared perfect, and allowed the sound from the front-firing driver to anchor the presentation. Exactly like every panel speaker I’ve used in the room, the 901s were much more interesting on the long wall.

The EQ Box and The Moment of Truth

Because the Bose 901 makes use of nine full-range drivers, it takes advantage of an inline equalizer to make the speakers sound the way they are intended. Traditionalists, before you cry foul, think of the popularity of DSP-based speakers these days. Bose achieves a similar, if less sophisticated and considerably less-expensive effect with a passive EQ.  The manual states the EQ can be used with series V 901s, but earlier models require the proper box.

If you are using a receiver, the EQ must be placed in a tape-monitor circuit, or between amp and preamp if you have separates. The supplied pair of three-foot RCA patch cords gets the ball rolling. The EQ features a two-position button: position one offering a flatter response, and position two adding a slight bass bump, not unlike the loudness button on a 70s receiver. Finally, there are two sliding controls for mid-bass and mid-treble, the latter claiming the most control over the overall tonal balance.

Slightly Rolled off Highs and Pretty Solid Bass

When set up like a conventional pair of smaller monitor speakers, the 901s produce a sound much like the original Magnepan MGIIs. Fortunately, audio pack rat and contributor Jerold O’Brien still has a mint pair of MGIIs to which I listened for direct comparison. Sure enough, they enjoy a softer, more relaxed high-frequency response, just like the 901s. The current MMG we reviewed possesses a bit more treble extension than the original MGIIs, but does not throw as large a soundfield. And, both Magnepan models need a ton of power to get up and go.

Where in semi-nearfield the 901s produce a wide soundstage, they also cast an excellent stereo image. A suite of Joni Mitchell tunes from Court and Spark, Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter captures her voice in the same approximate place as it’s found in my reference system. Sampling a wide range of solo vocalists reveals the importance of the mid-treble slider. Push too much for treble brightness and the vocals become grainy—not unlike when adjusting toe-in with a conventional speaker.

Thanks to their wide dispersion and massive soundstage, the 901s excel playing live-recorded music. Ted Nugent’s “My Love is Like a Tire Iron” from Intensities in Ten Cities equates to an impressive experience when cranked to brain-damage levels.  Nugent’s band is spread-out between and beyond the speaker boundaries, and never diminishes in intensity when I get up off the couch to grab another beer. These speakers rock.

Those questioning the bass, look no further than the Stereophile test CD.  50hz tones were reproduced solidly, with plenty of energy on the 40hz track, though things dropped off pretty significantly beneath 40hz.  A quick listen to a handful of bass heavy tracks from Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yello proved highly convincing and again, way more powerful than a number of small stand mounted speakers that I’m very familiar with.

Advantages of a Single Speaker Design

The essentially crossoverless design gives the 901 an unmistakable coherence, the model’s greatest strength. Its incredibly wide dispersion comes in a close second. The Bose 901s sound great anywhere in the room, and what you might give up in terms of ultra-focused, sweet-spot listening, you’ll gain in spades when you have a room full of people. These could very well be one of the world’s three or four best party speakers.  Again, compromise: Would you like a pair of speakers that you just listen to in your listening chair for private sessions, or do you do most of your listening in secondary mode while hanging out in the house cooking and entertaining?

No doubt, some graininess sneaks into the midband because the EQ box isn’t chock full of Mundorf capacitors. That said, have you ever taken a peek at the crossover of your choice $1,400 speaker? Precious few include components sporting any better quality.

After extensive listening, the Bose 901s strike me as being damn good. They have some limitations, but don’t all $1,400 speakers? For that matter, what $10,000 speakers are perfect? I’ve heard a handful of speakers that check a couple more audiophile boxes than the 901s, but I’ve heard many more that sound much worse. Much as I hate audiophile clichés, the “sins of omission” has never been truer than with these speakers.  They are so smooth and musical, it’s tough to freak out about the missing detail.

And that’s the area in which the 901 lacks: reproducing low-level detail and microdynamics. When the keyboard enters the first verse of Joni Mitchell’s “Trouble Child,” it’s subdued, as are the bongos at the beginning of “Jericho.” Again, I suspect information is lost in the EQ and through the stock cables. What the 901s sacrifice here, they make up for on a broader scale via the ability to play really loud and without strain.

The 901s cruise while being played at volumes well beyond those that would reduce mini monitors to rubble. Turning up Ace Frehley’s “Genghis Khan” from Anomaly at a level that hits 100 db peaks proves effortless.

Am I Nuts?

For those that think I’ve lost my marbles, I’ve played in every corner of the audiophile sandbox. Other than plasma tweeter designs, I’ve had my hands on almost everything over the past 35 years. Long-time TONEAudio readers know I have a soft spot for panel speakers (full range ESLs, in particular) and single-driver/SET systems. The 901s share many of the similarities that make enticing the latter types of speakers, and come with few of the limitations. Quad 57s are more beguiling through the midband, the MartinLogan speakers carry more extension at both ends of the frequency spectrum, and the Magepans lie somewhere in between. But they cost more and present greater challenges to a room and system.

Like any other “audiophile” speaker, the Bose 901 provides less-than-optimal results if setup is executed without care. I found the most lifelike sound came via a configuration slightly counterintuitive to that suggested by the manual.

The Bose 901s are equally highly musical and easy to listen to for hours without fatigue, characteristics many other speakers fail to deliver. Indeed, my audiophile buddies that I bribed into my listening room with IPAs are still shocked at just how good the 901s sound. As my wife likes to say, “What if Bigfoot is really a nice guy?” Consider this myth busted.

To make this conclusion as perfectly clear as possible and stave off any confusion: A handful of speakers in the $1,400 range reproduce music more accurately than the Bose 901. But—and like Pee Wee Herman likes to say, “Everyone has a big but”—the 901 gets the essence of the music right. The crossoverless design does a fantastic job with pace, which is what always draws me to single-driver and full-range electrostatic designs.

The ease with which it yields solid results makes the Bose 901 very attractive to both the normal music lover and budding audiophile. Mix the Bose 901s, a $150 vintage receiver, and an iPod, and you’ve created a rocking system. Add a better source and substitute a great tube integrated, and you’ll be shocked at the sheer musicality of the combination.

Yes, every speaker design involves compromise. Considering that this model is aimed more at the mass market than the audiophile, the 901s possess more than enough virtue to be considered an excellent value. They are certainly one of the most fun speakers I’ve had the pleasure to hear. Isn’t that what this is all supposed to be about?

The third and final installment to this trilogy will include listening results with alternate cable placement, changes to the reference system and speaker placement options.  So forget all the folklore you’ve heard about the Bose 901s, these are serious speakers. I’m seriously considering keeping the review pair for my beach house – they will fit right in with the Eames Lounge chair and Noguchi table.

Part 3: Epilogue

After listening to the Bose 901s for a couple of weeks, I remain convinced they offer good value for the price and are incredibly user-friendly. But how do they respond to the usual tweaks applied by audiophile to practically every other speaker?

Premium Components

While the 901s offer a more diffuse soundfield than many speakers, they have enough resolution to tell the difference between a vintage or mass-market receiver—as well as more upscale units, though, at a certain point, the contrast becomes fruitless. For example, it’s very easy to note the variation between the Pioneer SX-424 and Cambridge 740 amplifier, as well as the distinction between tube and solid-state amplification.

Stepping up the cable quality from standard Radio Shack 16-gauge wire also pays dividends in upper-midrange clarity and high-frequency extension—both priorities. Swapping the 16-gauge wire for a $199 pair of AudioQuest Rocket 33 speaker cables, and the supplied RCA patch cords for two pairs of $39 AudioQuest Copperhead interconnects, brings greater focus to the overall presentation.

Ah, the Pedestals

Even if the Bose 901s do not use a tweeter, per se, it’s to your advantage to get them up higher for critical listening than the height provided by the standard 18-inch pedestals; the manual specifies 18-36 inches as optimal. Again, just as a traditional speaker benefits, the 901s profit from solid speaker stands that are spiked at the bottom.

A few spots of blu-tack between the speakers and a pair of 24-inch Sound Anchor stands up the game, yielding tighter and more resolute bass response as well as a greater sense of pinpoint imaging across the soundstage. The Sound Anchor stands also make it much easier to take advantage of upgraded speaker cable, as it must travel down the center of the Bose pedestals. Those planning on using audiophile-vetted cable will have to get handy with a large drill bit to modify the stands. There’s no way you can pair Nordost Odin speaker cable with the 901s and the stock pedestal stands. Don’t even think about it.

Backwards Listening

A number of Bose enthusiasts enjoy listening to 901s “in reverse,” allowing the eight drivers mounted on the rear of the cabinet to face the listening position. My spirit of investigation encouraged this tact, but it was not my favorite position. There’s slightly more HF extension, but the big, expansive soundfield that makes the speaker so enticing simply disappears.

Final Thoughts

That’s my adventure with the Bose 901. These speakers have been a blast to listen to with every kind of music. While they yield decent performance with a low-budget receiver, they are worthy of journeyman-level components and a modest cable upgrade. Advanced hobbyists could probably uncover even more performance by modding the EQ’s passive components, but doing so is well beyond the scope of this review and definitely voids the warranty.

Bigfoot may still be lurking in the shadows (the rumor suggests he is in upstate Washington somewhere near the Canadian border), but the Bose 901 speakers are only a couple of mouse clicks away. Do it.

B&W’s MM-1 Portable Speakers:

“Where’s the sub?” Those were the first words out of my mouth as I entered Danny Haikin’s office at B&W in London earlier this year. He just smiled and said, “There isn’t one. That’s just coming from the two desktop speakers.” Then we spent the better part of the next hour talking about music while I got a proper demo of B&W’s latest masterpiece, built upon the technology incorporated in its Zeppelin models.

Indeed, a few years ago, B&W wowed the desktop/iPod world with its original Zeppelin and built on that success with the Zeppelin Mini and recently, an upgraded Zeppelin model. My tour of the B&W factory (full article to follow in a future issue of TONE) revealed a substantial amount of brain trust devoted to the Zeppelin line. The forward-thinking mindset has paid off handsomely for B&W, which now sells the Zeppelin and MM-1s through Apple stores as well as its own dealer network.

Like the rest of the B&W range, the MM-1s possess the understated elegance for which the marquee is known. While the $499 price might initially catch you off guard, the first listen proves reassuring. Incorporating a version of the Zeppelin’s DSP (digital signal processing) engine, the MM-1s are a two-way active speaker system that uses a tube-loaded tweeter—just like those in the company’s higher-end models—and a long-throw bass driver. The brochure claims that the MM-1 “is a true hi-fi speaker, shrunk to fit on your desktop,” and is absolutely correct.

Each of the MM-1s only takes up a 3.9 inch (100mm) x 3.9 inch square on your desktop and stands a mere 6.6 inches tall (170mm). The enclosures are wrapped in black textured grille cloth that is similar to B&W’s larger speakers, and trimmed with a brushed aluminum band and top plate. Our art director’s design sense immediately piqued during the photo shoot.

Quick Setup

The MM-1s looked like so much fun that I resisted the urge to read the instruction manual. I’m happy to report that the average computer user can be rocking in a matter of minutes. Three essential connections need to be made: The 4-pin umbilical from the left speaker to the right, the USB port from the right speaker to your computer, and the power supply to the right speaker.

I had to sneak inside my iMac’s sound control panel to direct sound output to the MM-1s via USB, but that was about it. The only glitch in the operation came when using the Control:Mac software with my Sooloos music server. For those accessing a Sooloos, you will have to use the supplied AUX cable to go between your Mac’s headphone output and the MM-1’s AUX input. The Mac will not send audio output from the Sooloos back out via USB. iTunes and Rhapsody users will have no trouble.

Once connected, volume can be controlled via the chrome band on the right speaker, the control panel on your computer, or with the egg-shaped volume control that is standard issue for the Zeppelin series. This is incredibly handy, should you utilize the MM-1s outside of an immediate desktop region. They actually worked quite well in my kitchen, fed via a nearby Apple Airport Express.

Verifying Initial Observations

To be sure I wasn’t brainwashed at B&W’s HQ with a tarted-up prototype, I began my listening sessions with tracks containing some bass.  First up, Thomas Dolby’s “Pulp Culture” from Aliens Ate My Buick. Then, after auditioning a few quick cuts from Tone Loc’s Loc-Ed After Dark, I was firmly convinced that the MM-1s had enough bass on tap. The warm sound I remembered from my London visit confirmed that these are serious desktop loudspeakers.

The B&W DSP engine works wonders, allowing the MM-1s to disappear on your desktop in an almost uncanny way. Prince’s One Nite Alone perfectly played to this strength, creating a soundfield that went well beyond the desktop’s borders. While not always convenient in an office environment, spend 30 minutes with the MM-1s, and you’ll never want to listen to headphones again.

With rock, rap, and funk checked off, time spent with acoustic music confirmed the speakers’ versatility and shared heritage with top-line B&W models. The Sooloos made it incredibly easy to switch between the desktop system with the MM-1s and my reference system built around B&W 805Ds. Both pairs of speakers had a similar, airy character, especially with piano and violin. Listening to Keith Jarrett’s Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87 equated to a spectacular experience on the desktop; with my eyes closed, it seemed like a piano was floating on my desk.

Serious Resolution

An uncanny level of resolution sets the MM-1s apart from many of the other powered computer speakers I’ve experienced. They reproduce spatial cues and create a three-dimensional soundfield in a way I’ve yet to experience with this type of product.

Even the most inexperienced listeners are easily able to hear the difference between low-res MP3 files and standard 16bit/44.1khz files of the Rolling Stones’ Through the Past Darkly. Yet the variation became more stunning when playing back the HD Tracks’ 24 bit/176khz versions. My friends were not only amazed by how much more information surfaced, but how effortless it was to discern such detail on a pair of $500 desktop speakers. For example, the texture in Mick Jagger’s voice on “Ruby Tuesday” proved staggering.  The only way I could get my desk back was to blast Steel Dragon’s “Death to All But Metal.” And while this deejaying change helped me regain my personal space, the MM-1s were still clearly up to task.

No Need to Fear High-End Sound

If you’ve been on the sidelines or fearing the complex world of high-end sound, jump in with a pair of B&W MM-1s. You won’t need any special cables or know how. And the speakers won’t leave a huge dent in your wallet.  Just plug them in and enjoy your music in a much more immersive way than you did before. Who knows, you might even be tempted to head to your B&W dealer for a pair of 800s one day. Good sound is contagious. This is truly a product you will wonder how you ever lived without.

Click here to visit the MM-1 site.

MartinLogan’s ElectroMotion ESL

If you happen to be a music lover who adores electrostatic speakers, you no doubt have your favorites. And if MartinLogan is on your radar, its Aerius is definitely at the top of your list. Considering what an amazing value the Aerius offered back in 1992 for about $2000, the fact that MartinLogan has hit nearly the same price with its ElectroMotion is nothing less than a major miracle in 2011.

When discussions about the ElectroMotion ESL began last fall, MartinLogan’s product manager Devin Zell couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. When he started telling me about the driver complement and fact that the company was trying to bring the speaker to market close to $2,000, I immediately thought of the Aerius. Zell, pleased that I picked up on the strategy, commented, “Exactly. We’ve had a number of product focus meetings and we’ve never quite been able to create a speaker like the Aerius for $2,000. Until now.” They came damn close – the EM-ESLs retail for $2,195

Of course that’s what marketing guys are supposed to say, but Zell put his money where his mouth is. “To prove just how amazing these speakers are, I’m going to send you a pair of Aerius i’s so you can compare them side by side.” Nothing like a man who walks it like he talks it.

Speaker Basics

The $2,195 ElectroMotion utilizes an 8-inch unamplified woofer and an ESL panel that uses the same “XStat MicroPerf” technology that is featured in MartinLogan’s top-of-the-line speakers. Thanks to such a design, the EM-ESL has about 40% more panel area than the Aerius, yet has a smaller footprint. The crossover uses ML’s latest technology, all trickled down from its flagship CLX speakers and a downward firing port.

The EM-ESL has a rated sensitivity of 91db and nominal impedance of 6 ohms, which dips to 1.6 ohms at 20khz, making the EM-ESL fairly tube-amplifier friendly. Switching from the Aerius i to the EM-ESL speakers with the PrimaLuna Dialog 4 power amplifier (EL34 output tubes, 40wpc), there wasn’t much perceived increase in output level even though the EM-ESL’s are allegedly 3db more sensitive. The additional bass control and HF extension became immediately apparent. Swapping back and forth between the two revealed the Aerius i to have a warmer, darker (richer to some) sound.

Save for binding posts, build quality is top-notch and worthy of a decent set of speaker cables. But those posts. Sourced from MartinLogan’s Motion 4 speakers, the only option is bare wire and banana plugs. Sure, MartinLogan had to sharpen the pencil to hit its price target, but most would happily pay an extra $100 to get proper binding posts.


Thanks to their smaller size and lighter weight (I’ve been using MartinLogan’s CLXs for some time, and they are much larger) the EM-ESL is easy to set up and can be easily accomplished with one person. They work well in a small-to-medium- sized room, but did an amazingly good job filling up my main 16 x 24 feet listening room. As with any panel speaker, the further you can keep them away from the sidewalls, the better, as doing so results in a wider stereo image. Fortunately, the EM-ESL’s small footprint allowed them to seamlessly integrate into my room better than any other panels I’ve tried since the MartinLogan Vantage.

Final placement ended up being about seven feet apart, slightly toed in with the ESL panels about 50 inches from the rear wall. While I spent a fair amount of time listening through PrimaLuna, CJ, and Octave power amplifiers I had on hand, the speakers’ limits were explored via the Burmester 011 preamplifier/911 mk. 3 power amplifier—the same combination through which I’ve auditioned MartinLogan’s CLX, Summit, and Summit X for nearly a year.

No, the average EM-ESL owner isn’t going to hook them up to a $60k power amplifier/preamplifier setup. But rest assured that these speakers weren’t embarrassed in the company of the Burmester gear, and yielded stellar performance. Finally, the EM-ESL’s spent the bulk of the review paired with Simaudio’s new 600i integrated amplifier. Yes, the tubes were great fun, and while the romance of the vacuum tubes appeal to some, a high-current solid-state amplifier coaxes maximum performance.

Comparing Old and New

I began comparison between the Aerius i and EM-ESL by playing “The Breeze,” from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Second Helping. Hardcore audiophiles might scoff, yet Skynyrd albums actually reveal tons of information due to the band’s triple lead-guitar format. Not only did they impress with excellent imaging of each of the three guitarists, the speakers also dynamically portrayed the grungy guitar intro to “Sugar Buzz” off kd lang’s new Sing it Loud. While a fairly dense recording, the ElectroMotions had no difficulty keeping Lang front and center without ever losing the bite of the instruments.

Switching between the Aerius i’s and EM-ESL’s repeatedly revealed the latter’s tremendous refinement. Regardless of musical choice, the current model possessed an increased level of resolution that its predecessor couldn’t touch. When listening to primarily acoustic fare, the EM-ESL’s presented instruments with a more lifelike timbre and provided extra low-level detail. Craving exquisite? Experience the cymbal decay on the title track of Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue via these cost-defying loudspeakers. I constantly had the illusion that I was listening to significantly more expensive speakers.

What’s more, the EM-ESL really pulls ahead of its predecessor when playing rock. Where the Aerius always struggled, running out of dynamic punch at higher levels, the MicroPerf panel in the ElectroMotion plays much louder without hitting its limit. I first noticed this ability in MartinLogan’s Summit (the original as well as the Summit X); I could actually play Metallica at a level loud enough to qualify as immersive. While the EM-ESL can’t play as loud as the Summit, all but the most crazed metalheads should find satisfaction. I was never disappointed when going through a fair share of classic Led Zeppelin or prog-minded Tool.

ESLs aren’t famous for having a huge sweet spot, yet that of the EM-ESL is on par with ML’s much more expensive Vantage. Amazing. The other surprise? Bass performance. The EM-ESL’s go down solidly to the mid-40hz range and still have useable output below 40hz, although, it should noted, they are rolling off at this point.

Exceeds Expectations

The Aerius was an amazing speaker in its day and still holds up well, but the MartinLogan team has learned a lot in the last 15 years. I’m still stunned that a company can manufacture a speaker this good for $1,995 in 2011. Granted, an ESL is slightly more finicky than your average pair of cone speakers, but if there’s a more exciting loudspeaker out there at this price, I certainly haven’t heard it. While the year isn’t yet half over, the EM-ESL’s are on our short list for a Product of the Year award.

MartinLogan EM-ESL Speakers

MSRP: $2,195

Manufacturer Info:


Amplifier Simaudio 600i

Digital Source Simaudio 750D

Analog Source Rega P9 w/RB1000 arm and Denon DL-103 cartridge, Parasound JC- phono preamp

Cable ED 411 ICs and 432 speaker cable

Power Running Springs Elgar

Sound Without Boundaries:

Over the years there has been more than one attempt at an omnidirectional speaker, but I can’t ever really recall one that has worked well, until now. So often we are presented with the dilemma of wanting great sound, but not being able to make the necessary sacrifices to put a pair of speakers where they can provide it. Enter the HRS-120’s. Reminiscent of the 70’s in their standard wood finish, I assure you the sound is completely modern, though those old enough to remember the Ohm Walsh speaker systems will definitely see an outwardly familiar shape.  A hexagonal column that stands about 14 inches in diameter and about four feet tall.  On top of the HRS-120 is their trademark DDD driver, which uses a titanium element.  For more information about the DDD driver, click here:

The HRS-120 uses this driver from 240 Hz all the way up to 21,500 Hz, so it is free of the crossover notches that would be present in a standard 3-way loudspeaker.  Interestingly enough, my MartinLogan Summit speakers have an almost identical crossover frequency to the ESL panel, which contributes to that speaker’s natural midrange as well.

While the wood finish is the least expensive in the model range at $27,405, it may not gain acceptance into the design aesthetic of your household.  Part of this will depend on room placement (more on that later).  Should you have the option to put them out in the room and display them like regular speakers, I would suggest upgrading to the more exotic finishes or the full carbon fiber finished model at $37,845, which also features a carbon fiber drive unit to match.

The HRS-120 is available with either a titanium coned DDD driver as reviewed here, or a carbon fibre coned DDD driver.     The HRS-120 fitted with the carbon fibre coned DDD driver shares the same high performance as its titanium coned sibling, but also offers some useful improvements.

The upper frequency limit is extended from 21,500Hz to 24,000Hz, providing more air to the sound.  The transient response is better, which gives an even more realistic rendering of drums and percussion.  The strength of the carbon fibre cone makes it almost impossible to damage the cone by driving it too hard and also enables it to withstand minor knocks making it more able to survive living with small children than other high-end drivers. The sensitivity is also marginally higher.


This is one speaker that really doesn’t need a fully treated room to perform at its best, though I did have excellent luck in my main listening room, which is 16 x 24 and has a full complement of room treatments. Because of the omnidirectional nature of the speaker, should you purchase a pair I suggest working towards the best bass response you can in the room and then adjust the high frequency level with the supplied jumpers that have a -2, -4 and +2db setting.  Because of the room treatments in my main room, I had the best luck there at the +2db setting.

Final placement on my long wall was about 34 inches from the back and about 10 feet apart.  Just as you would with a conventional box or planar speaker, move the HRS apart a few inches at a time until the sound field collapses and then keep splitting the difference inching them back together until you have the widest coherent stereo image.  I found the HRS-120 very easy to set up, and though it took about 20 minutes to optimize, these speakers provided the best sound I’ve yet heard, just “throwing them in the room,” with no attention paid to setup at all – they are the epitiome of user friendliness.  At 65 pounds each, they are relatively easy to move around.

In my 11 x 17 room which is notorious for bass suckout, and has limited speaker placement options, the HRS-120 came through brilliantly and other than the Meridian DSP7200’s (which use active, digital room correction) offered up some of the most natural sound and solid bass I’ve experienced in this relatively difficult room.  So, for ease of setup and placement, the HRS-120’s get a grade of A+.

Amplifier choices

My first experience with the HRS-120’s was at CES, powered by the 25 watt, Class –A Vitus monoblocks, which was a fantastic experience.  The speakers exhibited a very open, dynamic sound, with solid, well damped bass.  While show sound is not always a great indicator of a products performance, my experience has always been that anything sounding great within the confines of the Venetian usually sounds even better in my room.  Because of their omnidirectional nature, I got a bit better imaging and depth here in my studio, but overall the HRS-120’s turned in a very impressive sound at CES.

Even though the HRS-120’s have a rated sensitivity of about 87db, they proved to be very easy to drive and even the First Watt F4, which is only rated at 25 watts per channel (class –A), had no problem driving the speakers to decent levels.  The McIntosh MC275 (75 watts/channel, vacuum tubes) was able to really rock the HRS-120’s with no difficulties, and the highly resolving nature of these speakers easily revealed the differences in sonic character between the tubes and solid state amplifiers.

I did have the best luck, especially in my larger room with the additional power of the Conrad Johnson Premier 350.  With 350 watts per channel on tap, I could play anything I wanted at any level, without strain.  Should you be mating the HRS-120’s with a fairly high power amplifier, proceed with caution because the DDD driver does not exhibit cone breakup the way a traditional dome tweeter does.  Much like a ceramic driver, the DDD driver is very linear, so I suspect if you were to get a bit carried away with the volume control, you might damage the speaker unknowingly.

The Sound

As I hinted at the beginning of the review, the omnidirectional abilities of these speakers really throws a huge sweet spot.  If you enjoy the transparency of a panel speaker, but have always craved a larger listening area, the HRS-120 may be exactly what you are looking for.  Even significantly off axis, these speakers still present a very coherent soundstage.

What you do sacrifice slightly, in exchange for the giant sweet spot is a bit of pinpoint imaging.  While a “different” sound than you would expect from a large pair of dynamic speakers, the HRS-120 has a somewhat more diffuse quality, not completely unlike a pair of Magnepans, but with more dynamic drive, due to the driver design.

No matter what music I played, the HRS-120 did a fantastic job.  Especially with the Premier 350, I could achieve realistic volume and dynamics with my favorite rock records (which I can’t achieve with my Magnepans).  The 8 – inch woofer was solid down to about 35 Hz, so everything but hard core club and hip hop music had enough weight.

Jazz and vocal music lovers will be in absolute heaven with these speakers.  The instruments just seem to float in space, much as they do at a live performance.  My living room was transformed into a jazz club with the HRS-120’s and thanks to their dispersion, even a room full of guests could enjoy the show.  Playing Jacqui Naylor’s Live at the Plush Room was a treat and having heard Jacqui live numerous times, the HRS-120’s offered up a highly realistic reproduction.

The airy presentation of the HRS-120’s also really lent themselves to electronic music too.  Jean Michel Jarre’s Zoolook, a longtime trippy favorite was absolutely haunting thanks to the huge soundfield these speakers presented.  The water droplets and back tracked vocals in “Diva” easily raised the hair on the back of my neck, especially with the lights dimmed!

Those loving string and vocal ensembles will appreciate the lack of crossover in the mid  to upper midrange region.  These speakers do an exceptional job with piano and violin, with vocals never sounding pushed or harsh.  If your taste in music is more in this vein and not quite as requiring of full scale dynamics, you may even prefer the HRS-120’s with a tube amplifier, as the additional warmth makes for a very enjoyable presentation.  Those hooked on solo female vocals will appreciate the hyper –realism that some tubes bring to the equation.


The German Physiks HRS-120 speakers, though unconventional in appearance and approach, offer a highly realistic musical experience.  While these are by no means a budget speaker system, they are exceptionally well built and offer performance that is in keeping with their asking price.  They require precious little floor space and thanks to the ease of setup, offer more versatility than a number of other high performance (and similarly priced) speakers.

If you are tired of speakers with a narrow sweet spot, that everyone in your listening room can enjoy as much as you do, put a pair of German Physiks speakers on your short list to audition.

The German Physiks HRS-120 speakers

MSRP:  $27,405 – $42,600 (depending on driver config. and finish)

Contact Information:

The US distributor for German Physiks is:

Laufer Teknik
360 Southbury Road
Roxbury, CT 06783

Contact:  Sam Laufer

Tel: 860-355-4484

Email: [email protected]


Analog Source                                    TW Acustic Raven TWO w/SME iV.Vi and 309 tonearms, Dynavector XV-1s and Lyra Skala cartridges

Digital Source                                    Naim CD555

Preamplifier                                    Conrad Johnson ACT2 series 2

Power Amplifier                        First Watt F4, McIntosh MC275, Conrad Johnson Premier 350

Cable                                                Cardas Golden Reference

Power                                                Running Springs Jaco

MartinLogan Motion 4

I must admit, I’m almost never impressed with what I hear at audio shows, and it’s not for the manufacturers’ lack of trying. It’s always tough to hear anything decently at a show, even if the room is set up fairly well. But at last year’s CEDIA convention, there was something that really blew me away, the final prototypes of MartinLogan’s new Motion series, especially when I saw how tiny they were.

While MartinLogan is well known for their electrostat speakers, they have been making great strides with their ATF planar tweeters over the past few years, the Motion series uses the same air motion technology for their tweeter that was made famous by ESS in the 1970’s. The air motion driver has made a big comeback in the past ten years, showing up in flagship speakers from Dali and Burmester to name a few. Because of its folded ribbon nature, this tweeter has the speed of a panel speaker, offering the transparency that MartinLogan is famous for, but in a much smaller form factor.
Only about 5 x 5 inches and just over a foot tall, MartinLogan managed to stuff a 4 inch woofer with a folded bass port into this tiny, curvy enclosure along with the new tweeter. The Motion 4 has a rated sensitivity of 90db/1watt, but it is very easy to drive. I used these speakers exclusively in my living room system to see how well they would work in a small environment.


I used the speakers about 9 feet apart (2 feet from the side walls, 18 inches from the rear wall) on a pair of carbon fiber Whitworth stands, with a tiny bit of blu-tack between the speakers’ base and that of the stands. The Motion 4’s also have a mounting flange for wall mounting, which should prove handy in a compact surround sound system. I also made use of one of their new Dynamo 700 wireless subwoofers that we will feature a detailed review on soon. Suffice to say for now, it’s another home run from MartinLogan, providing outstanding performance, value and perfect integration for the Motion 4’s. I would highly suggest one of these to round out a full range system based around the Motion speakers, whether it is two-channel or multi channel.

The Motion 4’s have some recessed binding posts that are easy to get at if you are stringing something similar to zip cord or the basic upgraded wire that a lot of home installers use. Those wanting to use somewhat higher quality cables need to be sure they are terminated with banana plugs. Spades of any kind will not work, due to the recessed nature of the binding posts. The Motion 4’s only weigh 6 pounds each, so I can’t imagine using mega speaker cables with these speakers anyway.
binding post
The Audioquest Colorado speaker I used for my listening sessions was probably a bit overkill for this application, but it worked great and did provide better sound that later switching to $1/foot Radio Shack speaker wire could offer. The bottom line is that these little speakers are capable of a healthy dose of resolution. The rest of the reference system was rounded out with a Naim Uniti (50w/ch solid state) all in one receiver, which allowed CD’s, FM, Internet radio and my iPod to be used as sources and the Prima Luna Prologue 1 vacuum tube integrated (30w/ch) along with a Denon 3910. For those that will be using the Motion 4’s as the start of a two channel system, rest assured that they are easy to drive with tubes or transistors, making this speaker even more versatile.

The Sound

In a small room with corner placement, the Motion 4’s have a surprising amount of bass on tap, much more than their LF range spec of 75hz would suggest. Adding the slight warmth of the Prima Luna to the mix made me wonder at first if a subwoofer was even necessary, and if you aren’t listening to Pink Floyd at bone crushing levels, you might not either. MartinLogan concentrated on making a great speaker that only goes down to 75hz cleanly rather than a mediocre speaker that goes down to 50hz, sacrificing everything else to get that last bit of ultimate bass. Remember, adding a subwoofer to a speaker with lousy midrange isn’t HiFi.

The key to appreciating and enjoying this speaker is how much quality it offers, and for those of you that have MartinLogan speakers in your main listening room and perhaps need a second system, or would like to build a small home theater system in another room, you will be pleasantly surprised at how much of the core ML sound is on tap here.

I went through a fair share of my classic rock favorites, Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, The Doobies, etc. to get a good feel for how these little speakers would perform on music that I know like the back of my hand. Friends and family members were all amazed at the natural sound the Motion 4’s possessed, and a couple of MartinLogan owners were equally impressed.

Again, the key to this speaker is the midrange performance and transparency, they offered. Cymbals sound incredibly right and these speakers do a great job with solo vocals as well. I never really felt like I was listening to a pair of “budget” speakers. Those listening to a steady diet of jazz and classical music will notice a slight bit of grain in the upper mids, but that’s being really fussy. Again, remember, these are entry-level speakers, not a pair of CLX’s.

At the end of the test, my $35 Pioneer receiver from the 70’s was substituted for the Naim, to see how these speakers would perform in an “extreme budget” system, and they passed the test quite handily. While they are capable of high resolution and will shine with better electronics, the Motion 4’s will offer a lot of sound with anything you hook them up to.

The speakers are very robust and even with a 35-watt amplifier at my disposal; I was amazed at how loud they would play in my small room. When I got wacky with Megadeth, Metallica and Korn, I could tell they needed more oomph, but that’s what that Dynamo subwoofer is all about. If you add one of those to the mix, even the most hardcore metal head should be very happy indeed.

A Breakthrough

When I heard the Motion 4’s in front of a pair of CLX’s (playing through some very nice gear from McIntosh) at CEDIA, I was really impressed. While many of the people in the room exclaimed, “are those the big speakers?” I knew they weren’t the CLX’s, because I own a pair, but they certainly didn’t sound like, are you ready…
A $500 pair of speakers. That’s right. A pair of Motion 4’s will only set you back $500. Though my head is usually up in the clouds listening to five figure speaker systems, this is truly a breakthrough in budget speaker performance. No one on the staff guessed the price on the Motion 4’s; the closest bid was $800 a pair. Having just recently reviewed a number of small monitor speakers in the $1,500 – $3,000 a pair range, these speakers have got to be one of the best buys in high end audio today. Add that Dynamo 700, which is wireless ready, and you’ve got an amazing speaker system for under $1,200, and a great foundation to a system in the $2,000 – $3,000 range.

If we are going to get more people excited about the world of HiFi, this is definitely what we need a lot more of. I am very happy to award MartinLogan one of our Exceptional Value Awards for 2010. Don’t let the price fool you; the Motion 4’s are worthy of the MartinLogan name on the box.

-Jeff Dorgay

The MartinLogan Motion 4

MSRP: $499/pair


Amplification Naim Uniti, Prima Luna ProLogue 1

Digital Sources Denon 3910, Oppo BDP 83

Cable Audioquest Colorado

Power Shunyata Hydra 2, Shunyata Venom power cords

MartinLogan Purity: HiFi with ease!

Purity_Dark_Chery_Lifestyle_2In the last few years, MartinLogan has received a lot of praise for their hybrid electrostatic designs, mating their legendary electrostatic panel to a dynamic woofer. In the case of the Purity, it’s a pair of 6.5-inch woofers in a very compact package that will only take a 10 x 15 inch patch of your living area.

What makes the Purity special though, is the fact that these are powered speakers, so you only need a source component and a pair of fairly long interconnects to build a complete system! These speakers feature a 200-watt, high resolution, switching amplifier built in, so if you want high quality HiFi, but don’t want a rack full of gear to go along with it, the Purity is for you. You can even run them with an iPod or Squeezebox and have the ultimate minimalist system. The Purity can be customized for different color options, at a base price of $3,295.

Small sources

That’s exactly where I started my journey with the Purity. In my small (11 x 17 foot) living room with my iPod full of Apple Lossless files and a pair of 8 foot Radio Shack interconnects. Worth noting when you set the Purity up for the first time, there is a hard plastic base on the bottom of the speakers that will tilt the speakers’ electrostatic panel back somewhat or keep it straight up.

Pay careful attention to this adjustment, because tilting them back gives the speaker a better overall tonal balance if you are going to be listening to the speakers primarily walking around the room or mostly standing. If you are going to be more of a traditional audiophile, listening in your chair, stand them straight up. Note, that with either of these positions, you will lose some of the high frequency and focus when you are not in the optimum listening position.

Tech info

If you’ve got a high quality source, you will be floored at how good the Purity sounds and how much music comes out of these relatively small speakers. I’m guessing you will be in one of two camps: A legacy MartinLogan owner that needs another pair for a different room in your home or office or someone new to the MartinLogan way of doing things.

If you are new to the electrostatic speaker experience, you’ll be surprised at how open and airy these speakers sound compared to a lot of box speakers, and that’s MartinLogan’s trademark. The diaphragm inside the panel assembly weighs close to nothing, so it can accelerate instantly. Thanks to the crossover frequency being so low (450hz) this panel handles most of the critical musical information and the two small woofers give you the same amount of bass you would get with a larger woofer, but in a smaller space. Those two small woofers also move faster, to keep up with the panel, adding to the overall transparency of the sound.
If you’re already a MartinLogan owner, you know all this stuff and you probably want to know how the Purity compares to the larger speakers you already own. The actual panel in the Purity uses the same materials and construction as the rest of the MartinLogan line (all the way up to the flagship CLX, which is one of my reference speakers), featuring their 2nd generation electrostat panel technology.


Even using my iPod as a source, I was very impressed with the sound of the Purity. Think of the Purity as a bite-sized serving of what the CLX has to offer. When sitting in the sweet spot, it’s easy to be fooled at first listen that you aren’t hearing something much more expensive than the Purity and that’s it’s best attribute.

Granted, a switching amplifier has some limitations and because of the two 6.5 inch woofers, these speakers will reproduce solid bass down to about 40hz, where MartinLogans’ larger speakers will go all the way down to the mid 20’s, the overall balance is excellent.

As a MartinLogan owner, I was excited at just how much sound I could coax out of these speakers. After quite a bit of iPod listening, my next task was to investigate the limits of performance these speakers were capable of, so my next task was to drag out some better interconnects, power cords and source components to find out if this was a serious HiFi speaker after all.

Upping the ante

Again, the Purity passed with flying colors. Now, my “budget” system consisted of the Audio Research SP-17 preamplifier that we had in for review along with the Marantz K-A1 Pearl CD/SACD player. Both of these components cost almost as much as the Purity, and I did upgrade from Radio Shack interconnects to two pair of ED422 interconnects from Empirical Design, valued at about $500 each. I swapped the stock power cords from the Purities for a pair of Shunyata Venom cables ($125 each) and plugged the whole system into a Running Springs Haley power conditioner.Purity_Front_3Quarter

Bottom line, the Purity is up to the task of being the cornerstone of a real “audiophile” system too, so even if you start out just using the Purity with an iPod, you can rest assured that if the upgrade bug bites, you can grow with these speakers.

The Sound

The sound is pure MartinLogan. Open, airy highs, walk through midrange and tight punchy bass. I kept going back and forth between my dedicated listening room where the CLX’s make up a six-figure system and the Purity in my living room with the ARC/Marantz combination, playing the same CD’s on each.

The Purity did a fantastic job with everything I played. My favorite rock records had plenty of body and of course, vocal records really let these speakers shine. At times, you could definitely hear the limitations of the switching amplifiers present in the Purity, but that was only when comparing the system to my reference system. I think MartinLogan has done a great job with integrating the amp and speakers.

When playing musical selections that did not possess huge dynamic swings or subterranean bass notes, it was easy to be fooled when going between rooms. I was surprised at how good the speakers’ bass response was, considering the printed spec lists the LF response at 41hz. Yep, the driving bass line in “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” came through loud and clear. Speaking of loud, these babies did a great job with my favorite Mastodon, Tool and Metallica cuts, so they should be able to play anything else that interests you after this torture test.

While the Purity does not have the full scale of dynamic range that the more expensive Vantage or Spire possess, it does one thing better than most of the speakers in the MartinLogan line; top to bottom coherency. Those small woofers are fast and articulate. So much so, that you might be fooled into thinking this is a full range electrostat!

The only real limitation to the Purity is that the sweet spot for critical listening is small. If you have them angled back, the sound is very good all over the room, but the best sound will only be in one spot. Same thing if you have them optimized for your chair; that will be the only place you get all of the magic. Keep in mind you would have the same limitations with a small pair of mini monitors in this kind of space too, so I don’t see this as a limitation.

I also made it a point to run some fairly long interconnects to these speakers, as they only have RCA line-levelinputs. While I didn’t have any trouble with 20 foot interconnects, it might be a good idea for the next version of these to have balanced XLR inputs as well. Those with a budget source only possessing speaker level outputs can connect via the speaker level inputs as well.

In the end, convenience

Thanks to the internal power of the MartinLogan Purity, they make a great place to put a high quality sound system, where you might not have in the past. In five minutes you can have them set up and playing music and that’s what it’s all about. Though some of you might get grumpy that a powered speaker doesn’t give you the flexibility to choose amplifiers, speakers, etc., you’re missing the point; the Purity is the perfect speaker for someone who doesn’t want to bother with all of that! Plug em in and enjoy.

Because the Purity offers this level of performance, style and simplicity in one package at such a great price, we are awarding it one of our Publishers’ Choice awards for 2009.

The MartinLogan Purity
MSRP: $3,295


Sources: iPod Touch, Audio Research SP-17 preamplifier, Marantz K1 Pearl SACD player

Cable: Empirical Design ED 422 interconnects, Shunyata Venom Power Cables

Accessories: Running Springs Haley power conditioner

MartinLogan Summit X Speakers

summit_x_1For a few years, MartinLogan’s Summit was their flagship speaker, and it received worldwide praise. At the beginning of this year, MartinLogan took what they’d learned building the new flagship CLX full-range electrostatic speaker system and the Spire hybrid, and they created the current Summit X.  Just like the Summit, it features a pair of powered 10-inch woofers with one facing toward you and the other firing toward the floor.

Though it looks similar at first glance to the Summit, the Summit X is a completely different product.  MartinLogan’s Devin Zell told me, “We scrapped the CAD drawings for Summit X.  The panel is new, the woofers are new and the crossover is new.”  ML also added some cool light-blue lights that fire from underneath, giving the speakers a glowy feeling in your room.  “We just did that for fun,” Zell laughed on the phone as we discussed the added bling.

For many of you who like to listen in complete darkness, this is probably not going to be your bag.  But put me on the list of people who like it.  If they could only make them glow lime green to match the LEDs on my Naim and Burmester gear, I’d like it even more.  One handy addition to the lighting is the added LED that lights up the 25 and 50hz settings on the woofer modules, and work quite nicely.  This makes fine adjustment on the speaker easier than it was with the standard Summit.  And yes, you can shut it all off, which should keep all the molemen in the audience happy.

The Subtle and Not So Subtle Differences

For those of you not familiar with the MartinLogan product line, the Summit X has a rated frequency response of 24-23,000 hz (+/- 3 db) comprised of an electrostatic panel mated to a pair of  powered 10-inch aluminum coned woofers at a crossover frequency of 270hz.  It also features a pair of bass level controls at 25 and 50hz, which makes the Summit X easy to adapt to your room.  On paper, the specs are essentially identical to the original Summit that it replaces.

MartinLogan finished the production run of the Summit in 2008, and the Summit X became available in spring 2009. The Summit X carried a price increase of $3,000 over the Summit, and despite rumors that the Summit would be upgradeable to X status, this was not the case by the final release of the new speaker.  Quite a few people at MartinLogan anguished over this, but by the time the design on the Summit X was finalized, there were too many physical changes in the new speaker to make the upgrade possible and cost effective for the customer as well as ML.

Where the last version of the Summit started at $10,995, the Summit X’s base price is $13,995.  As in the past, a wide range of custom finishes is available through the MartinLogan custom shop.

Straightforward setup with care

The enclosed manual with the Summit X should get you set up in short order, and there are really two sides to this story.  The legacy MartinLogan owners probably don’t need much input from me, and many of you have your own theory on how you like your Logans set up.  Personally, I like ’em as far away from the side walls as possible.

While this is not convenient for everyone, the further you can get these babies from the side wall, the greater reward you will reap in soundstage width.  The Summit X worked much better on the short wall (16 feet) of my studio than my reference CLX’s, when on the long wall (24 feet).  With each speaker about seven feet from the side walls, they really opened up.  If you just can’t achieve this in your listening room, some modest room treatment just behind the panel and about two feet in front of the panel on the side wall will help tremendously.

Again optional, but well worth it if possible, is to get everything out from between your speakers.  Because they radiate from the front and back, the stereo image really suffers with a big rack of gear and giant flat-screen TV between the Summit X. Or any other panel speaker, for that matter.

My final listening position had the speakers just over nine feet apart, with the front surface of the panel 42 inches from the rear wall, slightly toed-in.  This put my ear-to-speaker distance just shy of 10 feet.  I would suggest at least a Radio Shack sound-level meter and a test tone disc to fully adjust the 25hz and 50hz controls on the back.  This along with some careful positioning will help smooth out the bass response of the Summit X and give you their maximum drive.

Identical to the last three MartinLogan Hybrid speakers I’ve used, the Summit X will require about 200-300 hours before sounding its best and achieving the maximum amount of integration between the dynamic woofers and the electrostatic panel.  When you first fire them up out of the shipping cartons, the bass will sound somewhat slow and bloated, no matter where you have the woofer controls set.  The biggest improvement will be in the first 100 hours, with incremental smoothness happening thereafter.

Not as sensitive to placement as the CLX, the Summit will still benefit from careful adjustment.  Once you have the speakers where you feel is the proper place, use your measuring devices of choice to get them identically placed from the rear wall in terms of toe-in and rake.  If you can get each speaker within  one-quarter to one-half inch of the other, this will help the image size and focus.  Thanks to longer spikes than the Summit, the Summit X offers a wider range of adjustment on the speaker rake, making them easier to adapt to your listening position.  If you like your seating position further back, angle the speakers backwards more.  If you like to sit closer, you can now angle these speakers from 11 degrees to -1 degree.

The sound

All of the top-range MartinLogan electrostatic speakers share a similar sound; big, open, airy and very dynamic.  As I said in my review two years ago about the original Summit, this is an electrostat on which you can play Metallica if you have enough clean amplifier power.  They are not as dynamic as a pair of Wilson Maxx 3s or some large horns, but the slice of musical heaven these speakers offer cannot be had by cone speakers either.

The Summit X continues this tradition and improves on all of the Summit’s strengths with no downside (other than the increased price).  Even though the frequency response specs are the same, this is indeed a different speaker.  The big improvement is in the quality of the bass response and the integration of the cone drivers.

summit_x_3MartinLogan calls it “Controlled Dispersion PoweredForceTM Bass” (Say that ten times as fast as you can). You can read the full technical details on their website at:

The bottom line: it works very well.  While the Summit X comes up a bit short in comparison to the flagship CLX in terms of upper bass speed and articulation, I feel that it takes hybrid speaker design to a new plateau.

No matter what kind of music you like to listen to, the Summit X will deliver the goods. The main strength of the Summit X is that it throws a huge soundfield in all directions, giving the listener a very immersive experience.  This is the MartinLogan magic at its best.  These are speakers that you will respond to strongly, or they will not be your cup of tea.

Thanks to that low 270hz crossover point, most of the music is reproduced by the panel, and this coherency is what gives the Summit X most of its appeal.  Male and female vocals are both reproduced exquisitely, and the speaker does an amazing job at disappearing in the room for its size.

When the low-frequency controls are properly adjusted, the Summit X has a substantial amount of deep, controlled bass that should satisfy 98 percent of its owners.  If you listen to a lot of pipe-organ music or club music with a lot of deep bass and the 24hz cutoff of the Summit X is not enough, you can add one or two Descent i subwoofers.  When adding the Descent i to the system and letting the Summit Xs run full range and crossing over the Descent at 35hz, I was getting solid, wall-shaking output when playing the 20hz test tone on the Stereophile Test Disc.

The Burning questions

Analysis paralysis is setting in but people want answers, so I’m going to put my head on the chopping block.  The Summit X is definitely an improvement over the original Summit and in my opinion definitely worth $3,000 more than the earlier model.  Listening to them side by side in the same system, the X model does a better job at bass integration with the panel0 and thanks to the dual woofers, it should not need a subwoofer except for all but the most demanding applications, or for heavy-duty home-theater systems.

Just like the Spire, the midrange in the Summit X is slightly less colored than that in the original Summit, though you don’t notice it until you hear both side by side.  I’ve seen people buy $3,000 worth of wire that didn’t offer anywhere near the improvement in performance that the Summit X does over the original, but I can’t tell you how to spend your money.

The Summit X also edges out the Summit in terms of low-level detail retrieval and microdynamics.  Cymbals and percussion instruments fade out with longer gradations than they did before, and very dense musical pieces are unraveled more easily.  Listening to both speakers side by side, each seemed to be able to play equally loud without fatigue. So this is definitely an evolutionary upgrade.

This builds on the strength of the original Summit – the Summit X is a resolving speaker that can be used to judge source components costing considerably more.  While $13,995 is by no means a budget loudspeaker, the Summit X holds its own in a six-figure system.

The dilemma facing the small group of Summit owners who want to make the step up is the cost of the upgrade.  They’re looking at about a $7,500 investment to make the leap from Summit to Summit X because the current used pricing of Summits is hovering around $6,000.  That’s the tough call and some feathers have been ruffled, but no one said playing the HiFi game at this level was going to be easy.

Tubes or transistors?

The other big question with the Summit X is what to drive them with, and there is a fairly wide range of discussion on this topic.  Many people swear by “tubes and stats,” and I used to use my CLS’s with the legendary Audio Research D-79.  But the current MartinLogan speakers dip to .7 ohms at 20khz, so if you have a tube power amplifier, I might suggest an audition with your amplifier before buying the Summit X, even if it means lugging your amp to your MartinLogan dealer.

The tube amplifiers with which I’ve achieved the best results with current MartinLogan speakers have been the BAT VK-55SE and PrimaLuna Dialog Monoblocks.  Even though these are medium-powered amplifiers in the 50-60 watt per channel range, they offer low-output impedance taps, offering a better transfer of power to these speakers.  I’ve also had excellent results with the Manley 250 monoblocks.

I feel that mating tubes with the Summit X is a case-by-case situation. You’ll know when it’s wrong immediately.  If your favorite tube amp doesn’t have the juice, the speakers that sounded great at the dealer will sound like they have blankets over them in your listening room.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  Though these speakers have a fairly high efficiency rating of 91db, the more clean power you can throw at them, the better.  I did not get the same level of dynamic contrast with 70-100 watt amplifiers as I did with 300- 400 watts per channel.

summit_x_2A worthy successor

I’d call the Summit X the Charles Barkley of loudspeakers.  It plays better than it will probably ever get credit for and it would have been a superstar if Michael Jordan (the CLX) hadn’t come along at about the same time.  But it’s still able to mop up everyone else on the court. Well, I can’t compare speakers to cars all the time, can I?

The good news is that the Summit X is about $10,000 less than the CLX, it has a lot more flexibility and it doesn’t require a pair of subwoofers to really give its all.  So perhaps it is a better value for all but the most demanding listener.  The Summit was one of my favorite speakers of all time, and the new Summit X is even better.  Properly setup with electronics to match, these speakers will paint a huge musical canvas for you to enjoy.

If you currently have the Summit, I’m guessing you will probably pass on the upgrade unless you can easily absorb the price difference. For those new to MartinLogan or trading up from further down the range, it is truly a fantastic speaker and a very worthy competitor in its price range.

Manufacturer’s Information

The MartinLogan Summit X

MSRP:  $13,995 (base finish)

2101 Delaware
Lawrence, KS 66046


Digital Sources    Naim CD555, Wadia 781i, Sooloos Music Server

Analog Sources    Spiral Groove SG-2 w/Triplanar Arm and Lyra Skala cartridge, TK Acoustics Raven 2 w/SME iV.Vi arm and Dynavector XV-1s

Preamplifiers      Burmester 011, Conrad Johnson ACT2/series 2

Power Amplifiers     Burmester 911 mk. 3, Conrad Johnson Premier 350, Nagra PSA, BAT VK-55SE,  Moscode 402au, Sanders Magnatech

Interconnects        Shunyata Aurora Speaker Cable     Shunyata Stratos SP

Power Conditioning      Running Springs Jaco and Dmitri, Shunyata Hydra 2, Shunyata Anaconda power cords and RSA Mongoose power cords

Vibration Control    Burmester V2 and V4 racks, Finite Elemente Cerapucs, Ceraballs

Room Treatment       GIK 242, GIK Tri traps, Sonex Classic

Accessories        Shunyata Dark Field Cable Elevators, Furutech DeMag, Clearaudio Simple Matrix record cleaner, VPI 16.5 record cleaner, MoFi record cleaning fluids