May 2001

Great Speakers for Under a Grand (Mostly)

Unlike the typical musician’s axe, the yellowed white pearl set of Gretsch drums, the increasingly rich Selmer horn from the ’50s, the still-mellowing woody tone of a 17th-century bass, most loudspeakers don’t get better with age. If you are still listening to those old Advents from your college years or something you bought when Miles was still with us, it might be worth considering a speaker purchase to fully appreciate the music on all those new CDs you’ve bought since 1987.

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Magnepan MG12 flat panel speaker
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Vienna Acoustics Haydn speaker
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AAD C-600 speaker
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Sonus Faber Concertino Home speaker
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Paradigm Studio 20s
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PSB Image 4T Speakers

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Thanks to concerted research in basic design and great technological strides made in the development of improved materials and ideas for enclosures, cones, magnet structures and even internal wiring, manufacturers have raised the bar of quality for speakers in every price range. Just like any consumer product, the sky is the limit for a purchase like this—there are some jaw-dropping speakers available for $20,000 and way beyond—but the quality of modestly priced speakers, say for $1,000 or less per pair, is absolutely astonishing.

“You can buy a very good speaker for under $1,000,” says Teri Inman of Stereotypes in Portland, Ore., herself a high-end retailer and active member of the Jazz Society of Oregon. “There has been a move in the last few years toward smaller speakers,” she explains. “And thankfully, along with the smaller size has come better sound thanks to advanced engineering. Today’s loudspeakers are light years ahead of what was available just 15 years ago.”

Is there a specific speaker that works best for jazz listeners? Not according to Phil Jones, formerly a jazz bassist, now a prolific speaker designer whose Soliloquy loudspeakers have won resounding critical accolades, and his brand-new company, American Acoustic Development, is already turning heads in the industry. “Since a speaker is a machine and not an instrument, it does not know whether it’s playing rock, classical or whatever,” he states. “I think a really good speaker can play it all. I believe jazz lovers should pursue the best possible sound quality they can afford so the equipment does not impede the musical performance. As a jazz lover myself, I always go for transparency, resolution, dynamics, full frequency and speed [i.e., the ability to reproduce bass without being slow and flabby] in a speaker. When I hear the music and not the speaker, that’s when I get excited.”

But how does one narrow down the choices in this price range, a range that offers hundreds of choices in a dizzying variety of sizes and levels of performance? Take it from me: It’s not easy. I listened to dozens of speakers for this report and only at the end did things finally start to come into focus. Shopping for a good loudspeaker is time consuming and exhausting, but worth the effort in the promise of increased enjoyment of your music collection.

Andrew Singer, proprietor of one of the country’s most respected high-end retail stores, New York’s Sound by Singer, agrees. “The hardest thing to understand when buying hi-fi is speakers. There are some good speakers and some bad speakers out there, all for about the same dough. People think that speakers are subjective,” he goes on, “but that’s not true—one speaker is better than another. The important thing is to find a dealer you can trust and listen to their suggestions because the average consumer can’t compare everything that’s available in a rational manner—you’ll need some guidance. If you want to spend your time shopping instead of enjoying music, go out and try to listen to every speaker you can find.”

So, rather than listen to hundreds of available options, start with some of the choices below. Others will come into play as you do your research just to make the hunt more interesting. At some point, you will hear the speaker that makes your foot tap, your heart pound and your eyes tear up when your hear a favorite Coltrane riff or a certain Sarah Vaughan phrase. That’s when to stop and pay the man. Pick up your boxes and get out running.

There are many categories of speaker design, but let’s boil our classifications down to just two: the traditional cones-in-a-box style we grew up with, which typically radiate sound only from the front of the box, often referred to as point source speakers, and dipole designs, which radiate to the rear as well as forward.

In the first category there are many great paths to travel, but interestingly, Inman and Singer mentioned a French brand, JM Lab, as being one of the best values on the market. “They make their own drivers, the very well respected Focals, used also by other top designers, so they can sell a premium product without paying a markup for parts,” according to Inman. The resulting speakers are quite good, producing some of the best overall sound of all the speakers I listened to, especially for the price. Great bass and high efficiency are hallmarks of this company and that’s a good thing for buyers on a budget whose other components might not be at the mega-buck level. Singer elaborates: “JM Lab speakers are not overly finicky when it comes to the front-end electronics but will reveal the good qualities of really great equipment if you have it.” Check out the JM Lab Chorus 715s at $850 or the 710s for $600. I’ve owned JM Labs for several years and can vouch for their performance.

Another good value for many of the same reasons is Phil Jones’ new AAD line, designed to give you the most sound for your money through AAD’s manufacturing most of their own parts. For the last couple of weeks I have been listening to the AAD C-600s ($529/pair) and have been very impressed with their overall ability to put real music into my room. Nice solid bass, very detailed midrange and very good imaging (painting an accurate, palpable portrait of instruments and voices in a definable acoustic space) make these a steal at this price. They will play at realistic levels even with low-powered amplification and these compact towers make a handsome addition to a room’s décor—my samples were trimmed in bird’s-eye maple.

Canadian manufacturers have made quite a splash with their very affordable and very musical speakers in the last 10 years, due in part to Canadian government subsidies. Leaders include Paradigm, Energy, Athena, PSB and Mirage. Athena has introduced a modular system of subwoofers and speakers that allows you to create a combination that can be tailored to your budget and room, but fits into one footprint: the speaker mounts right on top of the sub and clicks into place, completing the electrical connection in the process. Prices start around $600.

I listened to the Paradigm Studio 20s ($700/pair) and was impressed with the accuracy of their presentation: Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette were well-defined and properly positioned across the “stage.”

But the most fun of the Canadian bunch was from PSB. The several products in their Image series promise to be even more successful than their predecessors. I have lived with $400 PSBs in my office for several years and they have never been anything but satisfying. In a recent audition, the Image 4Ts ($649/pair) once more proved PSB successful in the attempt to create a speaker that makes real music. They are slightly rolled off in the upper frequencies, so they do not offer the “N”th degree of accuracy—but, they are speakers you can listen to for hours without suffering from the aural fatigue that some brighter designs produce. The slightly larger 5Ts ($799) offered all that and a bit more: a somewhat fuller midrange and more low-end presence—and just as pleasurable as other members of the PSB family.

Looking back to European designs, German Canton makes a nifty $1,000 entry called the Ergo 22DC. They placed Holly Cole front and center with a very clean, very open sound. I was impressed. I was likewise thrilled by the Vienna Acoustics Haydns ($995) and the Sonus Faber Concertino Home ($1,095). Both offered very accurate tonal rendering, well-defined acoustic space and wonderful midrange, great for vocals in particular (Diana Krall had me reaching for that grape she wants), but most other instruments as well. I really liked the way they reproduced Art Blakey’s drums on one of his last recordings with the Jazz Messengers, the attacks were sure and overtones exact—just the way drums are supposed to sound.

There are many fans of dipole speakers, and for good reason: because they (mostly) do away with the box and its limitations, relying on well-managed reflections off the rear walls to do their magic, they can do an amazing job of creating the illusion of real musicians playing in a real space right in your living room—it is a sense of openness that is rarely equaled with conventional speakers.

A new player in this area is the Monsoon FPF-1000 ($1,000/pair), a floor standing hybrid featuring their Planar Focus Technology flat panel drivers for the middle and upper ranges and conventional woofers for the lows. The result is a clean, open sound that will surprise you with its punch and clarity.

Richard Vandersteen has been designing unconventional speakers for many years and has impressed audio reviewers and consumers alike with great sound at a very affordable price. His Vandersteen 1Cs ($785) have long been regarded as marvels in the under $1,000 category. They look like speakers in a box, but are actually box-free—the speakers are mounted on a rigid frame and thus radiate to the front and back. The result is a three-dimensional image that is very impressive at this price.

But my favorite in this category, a nearly five-foot tall, two-inch thick flat panel made by Magnepan, is also the most pure realization of the dipole approach. The Magnepan MG12 ($1,100) is a fantastic speaker, though it might not be the choice for those who need chest-thumping, window-rattling bass—but how real is that anyway? What they do, especially with acoustic instruments and voices, is to create one of the most lifelike musical experiences of this trek. Their sound might take some getting used to, but words can’t properly express how good this can be; suffice it to say that the presence, the snap, the feel of musicians playing in front of me was there with startling, almost scary, accuracy. If your tastes lean toward mostly acoustic music you really should audition these.

It’s hard in a few words to present more than a few of the many terrific choices available. Dynaudio, Acoustic Energy, Rega and other manufacturers offer many other choices that deserve a listen.

Do a little research at your local dealers, grab a few of your favorite CDs or LPs and do some listening—and some talking. Just make sure you are sitting down when the music cranks up: the improvement in sound just might knock you off your feet.

How to Shop

Shopping for speakers can be grueling, but it can also be fun. Here are some ideas from audio experts Andrew Singer of Sound by Singer and Teri Inman of Stereotypes.

Singer offers the following:

“Speakers must be appropriate to the environment they will be used in and the equipment they will be used with. A good dealer can help with this, so find someone with a good reputation, who likes and understands music and with whom you can be comfortable. Be ready to tell them about your existing equipment and your room so they can suggest appropriate speakers. A good dealer would not suggest you pair thousand-buck speakers with a $300 receiver. If they recommend you upgrade that too, that is a good sign that they are not just giving what you ask for, but analyzing your situation and offering an overall solution and not just trying to make a sale. Then listen to some speakers on equipment similar to what you have at home. If they don’t sound good don’t buy them, but if they sound good, if they sound like live music, then buy them.”

Inman offers these suggestions:

“Audition with some recordings you like, but choose some things that were well-recorded. Then allow a lot of time for listening and enjoy the music—if the music connects with you, you know you’ve found the right speakers. But make sure your other equipment is synergistic with the speakers you consider, which can only be as good as what goes before them. You want to listen for tight, controlled bass and a fast accurate overall sound. Listen to a female vocalist and something with a piano in it. The vocalist offers a range that is difficult to reproduce and is a great test of a good speaker; the singer should not sound like she is coming out of a box and should sound open and not nasal. The piano should also sound open and natural with no clang. A good speaker will make you intimate with the performance. If you get new speakers home and they don’t sound as good as you think they should, remember that speakers take some time, maybe even a few weeks, to break in and achieve their full potential. If after a few weeks they still don’t sound right, a good dealer should allow a return or a trade-in. They should also be willing to make a house call to help fine tune your setup, which is critical for maximum performance.”

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