Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Sound Bargains: Speaker deals around $1,500

JazzTimes may earn a small commission if you buy something using one of the retail links in our articles. JazzTimes does not accept money for any editorial recommendations. Read more about our policy here. Thanks for supporting JazzTimes.

Last month’s Audio/Video Files dove headfirst into the profound mysteries of high-performance loudspeaker design. We learned that speakers are not simply a jumble of drivers and wires in a simple wooden box; they are an artistic effort akin to crafting a fine musical instrument, intended to channel the heart and soul of musicians into homes in a fashion emulating the live experience.

But the process of selecting a speaker that can accurately reproduce music can be daunting even for the seasoned audio buff. Weeks of careful research and auditioning can still result in a purchase that misses the musical mark by a mile. There is no magic formula, but the best guides should be an open mind and a pair of educated, attentive ears. After all, listening, and listening carefully, in a relaxed, no-pressure environment, is still the best way to evaluate a speaker.

To get started on the quest it might be helpful to get some insight from one of audio’s most respected sources. The Complete Guide to High-End Audio by Robert Harley (hifibooks.com) is an amazing reference for anyone serious about improving a home-audio system and contains mountains of information about loudspeakers, including the selection process and, just as important, the proper placement of speakers in the listening environment.

For starters, Harley suggests extended auditions of several speakers, but offers the caveat that one should only audition two speakers on any shopping expedition to avoid aural confusion. For obvious reasons, he adds that speakers should be evaluated with electronics similar to those you will use at home. He also echoes a tip offered regularly in this column: Make sure you take your own favorite discs to the showroom so details in the music will already be intimately familiar.

Getting down to listening, Harley makes specific points regarding desirable and undesirable characteristics. “Listen for thick, slow and tubby bass…You should hear distinct pitches in bass notes, not a low-frequency, ‘one-note’ growling under the music.” He warns that all bass notes should be even in volume and tone. Any unnatural increase in loudness at a particular pitch may indicate an unwanted resonance at that frequency. In addition, “The bottom end should be tight, clean and ‘quick.’ When it comes to bass, quality is more important than quantity.” In other words, “articulate” bass should be the goal and not the “plodding boominess” found in poor speaker designs.

Though he says that midrange problems have diminished greatly in modern loudspeakers, it is still important to pay close attention to this area, possibly the most important aspect of any speaker since this is the frequency range where nearly all instrumental attacks occur and represents the principal range of the human voice. Unfortunately, there are still plenty of speakers that twist up the midrange. “These can be identified by their ‘cupped hands’ coloration on vocals, a nasal quality, or an emphasis on certain vowel sounds,” Harley writes. “A problem a little higher in frequency is manifested as a ‘clangy’ piano sound.”

He then describes other effects midrange reproduction can have on the listening experience: “A good loudspeaker will present vocals as pure, open and seeming to exist independently of the loudspeakers. Midrange problems will also make the music sound as though it is coming out of boxes rather than existing in space.”

Notching up to the top of the frequency spectrum, Harley describes a bad high: “Poor treble performance is characterized by grainy or dirty sound to violins, cymbals, and vocal sibilants (s and sh sounds)…. If you find that a pair of speakers is making you aware of the treble as a separate component of the music, keep looking.”

Summing up, he says, “A good pair of loudspeakers will unfold the music in space before you, giving no clue that the sound is coming from two boxes placed at opposite sides of the room…. Overall, the less you’re aware of the loudspeakers themselves, the better.”

So let’s examine some of the goods. In this case the speakers will be around $1,500-some a bit over, some under-and for the most part, auditioning of these speakers was done with LPs, some audiophile pressings, some not.

Bohlender-Graebener (bgcorp.com) is a relative newcomer to the audio landscape and has already staked out some healthy territory; in fact, its Radia Z7 was recently named one of The Absolute Sound’s best products of the year. Bohlender-Graebener has focused most of its research on developing products that incorporate innovative planar speaker technology-in this case, based on ribbon diaphragms. Used for highs and mids, this ultrathin and ultralight driver delivers amazingly fast response that in turn produces stunning clarity and transparency in the music.

The Radia Z7 ($999/pair) employs the ribbon as a tweeter only, but that’s enough to create an open, crystalline sound belying this model’s quite affordable price tag. The balance between high frequencies and low was spot-on, the woofers perfectly capable of keeping up with the lightning speed of the ribbon. This is not always the case with hybrid designs, and often the transition between the two elements is more than apparent, an undesirable characteristic indeed, but not one exhibited here.

Spinning Paul Butterfield’s butt-kicking Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw album (featuring a young dude named Dave Sanborn on sax), these boxes projected Elvin Bishop’s guitar in a scorchingly correct manner, letting through all the piercing excitement of his ES-335. On “Born Under a Bad Sign,” the hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention-the horn section’s funky punctuation was tight and properly punchy, but each horn’s voice was fully distinguishable as well. I grew up with this disc and have probably never heard it sound so good. Dropping the needle on John Scofield’s Still Warm LP, his effects-soaked guitar floated pleasingly in the middle of the room, hypnotically balanced, and Omar Hakim’s drums were rich and full. The Radia Z7 is a terrific audio bargain, even if your budget allows for something more expensive.

A long time ago the father of one of my drummer buddies had a pair of strange British speakers that were filled with sand. He explained that these whacked-out Wharfedales sounded so good because the sand added mass and stability to the box-damn! Sand in the box! Genius. Now, 35 years on, Wharfedale is back (iagamerica.com), without the sand, but with speakers that scream quality in their appearance, and happen to fulfill that external promise with sound to match. One of the principal factors in that final sound is Wharfedale’s “vertical integration,” which means it designs and manufactures every component making up its products, from speaker drivers to cabinetry.

Pacific Evolution is Wharfedale’s middle product line, and the EVO-40 ($1,499/pair) is at the upper end of it. Indeed, the exterior fit and finish is first-rate, implying a speaker with a much larger price tag-but it’s sound, not just look, that we’re after. I just picked up the lion’s share of Mosaic’s stunning LP box sets of Miles Davis reissues, and sitting down to “Dolores” from the 1965-68 Quintet years was a joy. Tony Williams’ explosive punch and Ron Carter’s propulsive, running bass made me sit up and listen with special attention, enthralled by the finesse of these speakers, which also put Miles right out in front, where he should be. At one point, I could even hear Wayne Shorter make a slight shift away from the mike during his solo, something which probably happens often in sessions but is not always audible with average speakers. The EVO-40’s ability to resolve such nuances speaks volumes about their caliber.

I also had to check out my favorite Betty Carter LP, Now It’s My Turn, a remarkably vivid recording. With amazing accuracy, the Wharfedales conveyed every microdecibel of Carter’s unique talent, and every detail of this stunning recording was there for the savoring. The EVO-40s projected the proper tonal balance of each instrument, painting a hyper-realistic portrait of the performance, including all the energy and excitement of the players. But most important, the power, depth and range of her voice were presented in a seductive, satisfying tableau. These Wharfedales hit the musical nail right on the head.

Spendor Audio Systems Ltd. (spendoraudio.com) has a pedigree traceable back to the hallowed halls of late-1960s BBC. The company eventually supplied speakers to many of the finest studios in the world, and with that heritage as the foundation it has broadened its lineup, which now runs from classic mini-monitors to more sizable floor-standing models.

The S5e ($1,649/pair) is a meticulously constructed compact enclosure of obvious craftsmanship, veneered inside and out to help increase stability of the wood and extend the lifespan of the cabinet. And though the box is of a fairly modest size, there is nothing diminutive about the sound these little gems produce-they capture the size and scale of music in a surprisingly grand way.

A good test of a speaker’s balance between the various drivers is how they reproduce a mono recording-proper balance produces an image of the performers that is focused dead center between the two enclosures. With improper design, the image becomes confused and can wander from one side of the soundstage to the other. To check this out, I put on the Classic Records 200-gram Quiex Super Vinyl monophonic reissue of Hank Mobley’s 1957 eponymous Blue Note release. All instruments were firmly anchored directly in the midpoint with absolutely no meandering about the soundstage, with Mobley’s tenor blooming forth with a commandingly seductive quality.

A musically and sonically astonishing recording from the late ’70s, The Great Jazz Trio-featuring Hank Jones, Ron Carter and Tony Williams-still knocks my socks off, owing in large part to the warm atmosphere and tightly focused imaging captured by its initial LP release. On the title tune, “‘Round Midnight,” the guys diverge from the usual languid Monk tempo and shift into a more uptempo groove that swings in a way that might even coax Monk to do a little dance in admiration; with the Spendors, the energy of the musicians’ tremendous efforts was quite palpable. Carter’s bass was full, round and smooth, and his locomotive attack was sharp and powerful, driving the band insistently along. The Spendors carved Jones’ piano out of solid rock and displayed Williams’ drum work as the bursts of fireworks that they were.

As regular readers know, the bewitching talent of Patricia Barber beguiles me. On her “Touch of Trash,” from the 33 RPM vinyl release of Modern Cool (there is a new 45 RPM version by Mobile Fidelity), Barber’s moxie, understated grace and neon-flashing genius come through loud and clear on the Spendors. There was nothing closed-in or unnatural about her striking voice, an important observation since we now know female vocals are an excellent test of a speaker’s ability to reproduce midrange. Give the Spendors another ‘A’ on this workout, but being completely tonally balanced, they also allow for plenty of detail in the highs and crank out fine, accurate, tuneful bass as well. These Spendors can really play music and are an absolute bargain.

Reference 3A (divertech.com) is not exactly a household brand name but is hugely deserving of wider recognition from the music-loving public. The diminutive Dulcet ($1,695/pair), a finely crafted mini-monitor best positioned on stands well away from rear and side walls, proves once again that this is indeed a company that can seemingly work miracles, conjuring convincing sound, or rather music, from small boxes that might otherwise solicit giggles from those who assume that size matters.

I put them to the gravitas test by playing one of the most amazing blues LPs ever recorded, Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer, in an 180-gram vinyl pressing from Classic. The instrumentation is all acoustic and spare, which, when combined with Waters’ vocals and the disc’s nigh-perfect sonics, creates a hauntingly powerful performance. That commanding voice, augmented by that awesome Chess label reverb, hovered in space between the speakers, precisely carved by the Dulcets in the front of my living room-chilling, genuine and clear. Waters’ and Buddy Guy’s guitars took on a surprising realism that projected each and every note in a decidedly unambiguous fashion.

The Dulcets should be on any short list of speakers destined for small- or medium-size listening rooms, though there is absolutely nothing small about their sound. They have a purity and transparency that is the hallmark of mini-monitors and invite you to turn out the lights to listen all night long.

Finally, I had a brief audition of Paradigm’s (paradigm.com) Reference Studio 40s ($1,200/pair) and Studio 60s ($1,600/pair). Because they share the same driver complement, exhibit a very similar sonic profile. The principal difference is the 60s’ somewhat larger enclosure, which results in slightly better midrange and more ample bass-but make no mistake: The 40s are no slouch on either count. (As with any ‘bookshelf’ speaker, the 40s should never be positioned on a bookshelf; they should be mounted on proper, rigid speaker stands to achieve optimum performance.)

Both Paradigms presented a believable, engaging musical performance with marvelously detailed, crisp highs with no hint of distortion, and a midrange accurate on both acoustic piano and female vocals. Bass was plentiful, tightly controlled and exhibiting no signs whatsoever of boominess or flab. Either of these models would make an excellent anchor around which to build a highly enjoyable and musical audio system. Paradigm’s reputation rests on offering quality products priced far below what their performance would indicate, and the 40s and 60s fit perfectly within this, well, paradigm, while raising the flag just a bit higher.

These are just a few of the hundreds of high-performance choices within our arbitrary $1,500 cutoff. Don’t overlook the Totems and Tetras featured in last month’s JazzTimes, but also consider the terrific products from PSB, Usher, Triangle Electroacoustique, Anthony Gallo, Bowers & Wilkins (B&W), Canton, JMLab, Magneplanar, Vandersteen and many others. With so many from which to choose, the process can be daunting. But a little exploration of these sometimes esoteric corners will reveal a route leading straight to a new world and its highly desirable musical El Dorado.

Originally Published