Affordable Speakers (and Earbuds) at CES 2009

Earphones and in-ear monitors
Affordable Speakers (and Earbuds) at CES 2009

As many of you know, I’m not only editor of Playback, but also an occasional contributor to Playback’s famous sister magazine, The Absolute Sound. This year at CES, as has become my custom, I agreed to research sub-$2000/pair loudspeakers on behalf of The Absolute Sound—a labor of love that turns out to have plenty of relevance for Playback readers, too, since many of the products discovered turn out to make great platforms either for surround sound home theater systems or for desktop (CyberListener-type) systems.

I thought I might list some of this year’s most promising affordable (~$2k/stereo pair) loudspeakers, earbuds, and headphones, if only to inspire some of you to go out and give them a listen. I’ve tried to pick models that struck me as having great potential for delivering big bang for the bucks.

Note that I have not heard all of the speakers, earbuds, and headphones listed here (some were, after all, shown only on static display at CES). So, what you’re getting here is a list based partly on brief listening experiences, and partly on intuition and instinct born of years of experience with this equipment genre (I’m an enthusiastic proponent of well-made, great-sounding, high-value loudspeaker systems).

Small Monitors
•    AAD (soon to be Phil Jones Pure Sound) Silver-1 monitors
•    Acoustic Energy Radiance One monitors
•    Air Tight MSM-1 “The Bonsai” monitors (based on a single, small, full-range driver, this baby won’t fit general purpose applications—except in small listening space, but it does offer a certain purity and grace).
•    Amphion Prio 510 monitors. A cool looking, “controlled directivity” design from Finland.
•    ASW Genius 100 monitors from Germany.
•    Atohm Sirocco 1.0 monitors from France. Designed by Thierry Comte.
•    Audioengine AP4—a very low-cost small monitor based on Audioengine’s very successful self-powered desktop monitor (as reviewed in Playback).
•    Cambridge Audio S30 monitors: small, tasteful monitors that complement Cambridge’s new desktop-sized audio components.
•    DeVore Fidelity Gibbon 3 monitors: superb imagers, just like the bigger DeVore Gibbons.
•    DLS Audio M60 monitors.
•    Dynaudio DM 2/7 monitors: the smallest and most affordable model in Dynaudio’s DM-family of entry -level monitors.
•    Epos ELS8 monitors: a bigger, better, revised replacement for the Epos ELS3—a speaker many knowledgeable enthusiast regard as a budget classic.
•    Highland Audio Siansa 102 monitors: this little speaker won the heart, mind, and ears of The Absolute Sound’s publisher (and Nextscreen VP) Mark Fisher.
•    KEF XQ20 monitors: priced at $2k/pair, these little wonders look and sound as if they should cost much more.
•    Mordaunt-Short Mezzo 1 and Mezzo 2 monitors feature the firm’s very distinctive and highly effective, rear-vented “aspirated” tweeter.
•    Newport Audio G85-REC monitors: all the money in this speaker goes into high quality drive units, crossover parts, and a billet aluminum baffle plate. The matte black boxes aren’t much to look at, but the sound is big and bold.
•    Onix of England Monitor 1 and Bravo monitors; it’s a crying shame these speakers aren’t widely distributed in the U.S., because they sound great and are reasonably priced.
•    Opera Mezza monitors: Critically acclaimed in Europe, but not yet distributed in the U.S.
•    Peachtree ds4.5 monitors leverage technologies borrowed from sister brand ERA.
•    Phase Technology PC 1.5 monitors: a tasty monitor speaker from the guys who hold the core patents on fabric dome tweeter technology.
•    Rega RS One monitors.
•    Sonics Argenta monitors.
•    Sonus faber Toy monitors. Toy is a new entry-level speaker line from Sonus faber with models that, like some earlier generation S-f products, feature gorgeous leather-covered enclosures.

Self-Powered Desktop Monitors
•    Adam Audio A5 self-powered monitor (with, if you like, its matching Sub7 subwoofer)
•    Quad 9L Active self-powered monitor
•    NuForce’s three-piece system comprising S-1 desktop monitors, optional W-1 subwoofer, and matching Icon desktop integrated amplifier with built-in USB DAC (would make a great starter system).

•    Cambridge Audio S70 towers: bigger brothers to the S30 monitors, above. Very affordable (under $600/pair).
•    Canton GLE 470 towers.
•    Focal Chorus 814: A new, affordable entry in the Chorus family (any color you want, as long as it’s black).
•    Focus Audio FC9: wonderfully balanced and refined sound—especially so for this price class.
•    King Sound Queen II hybrid electrostats. Terrific treble purity, but caution: might be too bass-shy for some.
•    Mordaunt-Short Mezzo 6 towers feature the firm’s very distinctive and highly effective, rear-vented “aspirated” tweeter, plus signature aluminum mid-bass drivers.
•    Paradigm’s new Reference Studio 60 v. towers: the fifth-generation version of one of our perennial favorites in the world of affordable loudspeakers. The v.5 models feature distinctive new elliptical driver surrounds and greatly improved enclosures. The Studio 100 looks very promising, too, but is priced outside of our ~$2k/pair window.
•    Rega RS Three and Five floorstanders.  The transmission line-equipped RS Seven tower looks very promising, too, though it is priced well outside our ~$2k/pair window.
•    Usher SW520/S520 two-piece floorstander. Usher showed a clever new passive subwoofer designed to complement the firm’s award-winning S520 mini-monitor (as reviewed in Playback). The result: a very attractively priced, two-piece, full-range speaker.

Sat/Sub Systems
•    Anthony Gallo Acoustics Reference Strada satellite/monitor with matching TR-3 subwoofer. Hands down the best sat/sub system I heard at CES and, in my view, a remarkable engineering achievement.
•    Focal Dôme 2.1 sat/sub system.  An amazingly compact and affordable way to tap in to full-range Focal sound.
•    NuForce’s three-piece system comprising S-1 desktop monitors, optional W-1 subwoofer, and matching Icon desktop integrated amplifier with built-in USB DAC (would make a great starter system).

Single-Enclosure Surround Systems
•    B&W Panorama: an ambitious and surprisingly refined entry in this category.
•    Canton DM70: a wonderful first sound bar from the German speaker maker, and one whose surround effects are more effective than most.
•    Niro SSS (Spherical Surround System). OK, I fibbed; it’s actually a compact three-enclosure system, but man, does it ever work well!
•    Phase Technology Teatro PC30 sound bar with EVT (Enhanced Voice Technology).

iPod Speakers
•    Cue Acoustics r1 iPod speaker/table radio with matching s1 extension speaker. The two-piece format gives this system more of a “real” stereo system feel than most iPod speakers.
•    Kanto Zed compact iPod speaker
•    Paradigm Edge iPod/DVD/table radio system.

Earbuds & Headphones
•    Audio-Technica ATH-ANC3 noise-cancelling in-ear headphones.
•    Beats by Dre Tour in-ear headphones: to my way of thinking these handily outperform the original Beats by Dre over-the-ear headphones (as reviewed in Playback). Watch for a separate CyberListener blog on these, soon.
•    Monster Cable Turbine in-ear headphones: truly excellent earbuds at a very fair price. Watch for a separate CyberListener blog on these, soon.
•    NuForce NE-7M and NE-8 in-ear headphones: Folks, you won’t believe how good these are, and for ridiculously reasonable amounts of money.
•    Sennheiser HD800: Many people regarded Sennheiser’s previous flaghship, the HD650, as one of the best headphones around, but the new HD800 is significantly better, combining the best elements of dynamic and electrostatic sound. My one word summary on both the sound and the $1400 price tag of these new ‘phones: Wow!
•    Shure SE115 in-ear headphones slot in between the SE110s (as reviewed in Playback) and the more expensive Shures. The SE110s continue in the line, but at a new, reduced price.

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