RMAF 2011 Report - Loudspeakers under $5,000

DALI Fazon F5,
Emerald Physics CS3,
Emotiva airmotiv 5,
Epos Epic 2,
Evolution Acoustics MMMicroOne,
GR Research Super-V,
Hsu VTF-1,
Odyssey Audio Kismet Reference Monitor,
Polk Audio LSiM 703,
REL T7 ,
Teresonic Magus A55,
Von Schweikert Audio VR-33,
Wharfedale Jade-series Model 7
RMAF 2011 Report - Loudspeakers under $5,000

Click here to check out our entire list of RMAF 2011 blogs.

I’ve always believed high-end audio should be accessible to the widest audience possible, and so I was delighted to find my RMAF assignment was to cover a product category that potentially offers the most music for the least money—speakers under $5000. The great news is that there were sonic treasures galore in this segment at RMAF, some highlights of which I’ll describe for you below. Just know that for every model I describe, there were probably two or more worthy products I’ve left unmentioned owing to space constraints. Note, too, that I will mention some not necessarily new-for-RMAF models, especially in cases where speakers sounded better this year than in the past. As you’ll soon discover, this is a great time to shop for overachieving loudspeakers that won’t break the bank.

Standmount Monitors, Under $2500

First up in our cavalcade of value is the 2-way, self-powered Emotiva airmotiv 5 monitor ($599/pair), which sports a Heil-type tweeter, a dynamic mid-bass driver, and dual onboard amplifiers (2 x 100 watts) with user selectable EQ controls. Together these features give the airmotiv 5 an open, balanced, and well-controlled sound, making it easy to go from zero to hi-fi in one simple step. Just add source components and you’re good to go.

In the Music Hall room I discovered the sweet new Epos Epic 2 monitors ($799/pair). The Epic 2’s mimic the appearance of such classic British monitors as the Spendor BC1, but offer a suave, engaging and evocative sound that’s thoroughly contemporary.

Living Sounds Audio’s (LSA) compact 2-way .5 monitor ($800/pair) sounded impressively vibrant and dynamically expressive, despite their diminutive size. While the .5’s may not look particularly exotic, one listen will convince you they’re something special.

Designed specifically for placement near walls, the Sjöfn HiFi (the clue) monitors ($999/pair), as powered by Hegel electronics, were wowing listeners with their 3D soundstaging, unexpectedly extended bass response, and all-around refinement. Rarely have such innocuous-looking compact monitors produced such a big, expansive sound.

One of the most significant products in this group is the sophisticated Polk Audio LSiM 703 3-way monitor ($1499/pair). This beautifully finished and sumptuous-sounding speaker leverages what Polk calls its “Dynamic Sonic Engine” module—a driver array consisting of a ring-radiator tweeter and a small, responsive midrange driver, which together give Polk LSiM-series speakers their signature sound.

Standmount Monitors, $2500 - $4999

Listen with your eyes closed and you might swear the Evolution Acoustics MMMicroOne’s ($2500/pair, stands included) were hyper-expensive, hyper-exotic monitors. The exotic part is mostly true as the MicroOne’s feature a D’Appolito-type array consisting of dual ceramic matrix mid-bass drivers and centrally positioned Heil-type tweeter. Evolution used a DartZeel amplifier and a Playback Designs player to drive the MicroOne’s at RMAF, reinforcing the idea that these sensibly-priced monitors are completely at home in the company of top-shelf components.

Next up is the impressive Klaus Bunge-designed Odyssey Audio Kismet Reference Monitor ($3500/pair, stands included), which is based on the ScanSpeak Revelator 4531 mid-bass driver and ScanSpeak’s terrific new Beryllium tweeter. Though more functional than lovely to look at, the Kismet Reference Monitors are certainly beautiful to hear. In fact, the driver’s mesh so perfectly in this speaker that you can’t help but listen and think, “these just sound right—and ultra-refined, too”

One speaker the caught me by surprise (even though TAS Publisher Jim Hannon had praised it in a past blog) was the Teresonic Magus A55 monitor ($4995/pair), which is based on a single full-range Lowther driver fitted with an Alnico magnet. Normally I wonder if such designs will provide neutral tonal balance or adequately extended frequency response, but the Magus quickly allayed my fears with exquisite highs, surprisingly full-bodied bass, and eminently cohesive and natural-sounding mids. Even when positioned on (far from ideal) floor spikes, the A55’s managed to throw wide, deep soundstages with impressive image height.

The futuristic, 2-way, three-driver Dali Fazon F5 ($4495 – $4795/pair, with built-in floor stands) uses driver technology initially developed for the firm’s traditional Mentor 5 speakers, while introducing a curvaceous and exceedingly stiff enclosure die-cast from aluminum. But don’t make the mistake of thinking the Fazon is a glorified “lifestyle” product; in truth, it offers an unmistakably high-end sound, while its rigid enclosure gives Dali’s high-quality drive units an audible performance lift.

Floorstanders and Sat/Sub Systems

Offering astounding value was a sat/sub system from Hsu Research featuring horn-loaded HB-1 MkII monitors ($298/pair) and a VTF-1 powered subwoofer ($449). If you like large scale music played at realistic levels with plenty of articulacy and jaw-dropping bass extension, this $747 bundle is just the ticket.

Representing a terrific desktop audio solution was a sat/sub combo based one Sonus faber Toy monitors ($1300/pair) and a REL T5 subwoofer ($500). With a little help from the REL, the Toys happily unleashed deep 3D sounstages that could make even jaded audiophiles smile.

The team at Emerald Physics also turned to REL for low frequency support, pairing their 2-way, coaxial driver, open-baffle, controlled dispersion CS3 floorstanders (normally $3000 and up, depending on finish) with a REL T7 subwoofer—all at a bundled price of about $3500. The CS3 also comes with a custom-programmed, Behringer-sourced digital EQ/electronic crossover box that simplifies driver and subwoofer integration tasks. The resulting sound is focused, three-dimensional, and explosively dynamic, with the REL contributing potent (but never overblown) deep bass.

Also exploiting the benefits of an open-baffle, controlled directivity design is the GR Research Super-V floorstander, which sports two servo-controlled, self-amplified woofers. The catch is that you can’t buy a fully-finished pair of Super-V’s, though if you’re handy with tools GR will sell you a kit containing everything you’ll need to build a pair ($2495 for the core components including woofer amps, plus $1350 for unfinished enclosure panels). While there’s definitely “some assembly required,” this $3845 package may well offer the most performance upside of any loudspeaker in this report. Expect a huge, wide-open, and richly detailed sound with muscular dynamics and great bass.

Wharfedale’s flagship Jade-series Model 7 floorstander ($4199) is a large 4-way, five-driver speaker that marries exotic “Acufibre” driver technology with a sleek, curved-wall enclosure design. The Model 7’s demonstrated quite impressive levels of detail, subtlety and finesse, though the demo room had an apparent bass suck-out that made it difficult to judge low frequency capabilities.

Von Schweikert’s 3-way, four-driver VR-33 floorstanders ($3750 - $4500/pair) are sold on a factory-direct basis and billed as offering five-figure sound at a four-figure price. Last year I would have said that claim was overreaching, but this year the VR-33’s came a whole lot closer to making the manufacturer’s performance claims stick. The VR-33 is designed for near-wall placement, and once correctly positioned it offers very good levels of detail, excellent soundstaging, and potent bass.

Chris Martens’ Best in Show

Best Sound (cost no object)

Nola’s Baby Grand Reference II speaker is a superb design now made even better, yielding spectacularly 3D sound, with ARC electronics.

Best Sound (for the money)

Sjöfn’s (the clue) monitors ($999/pair) sounded ridiculously sophisticated for not a lot of moolah, while Hegel electronics did their part.

Greatest Bargain (individual product)

For under $2k the Audez’e LCD-3 planar magnetic headphone provided near state-of-the-art purity, subtlety, dynamics, and full-range frequency response.

Most Significant Product Introduction

Analogue Productions SACD reissue of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here reminds us what high-end audio is about: the music.

Most Significant Trend

Now more than ever, high-performance headphones are winning the hearts and minds of serious listeners—whether the high-end establishment takes notice or not.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Featured Articles