With its pink-gold Uni-Q coincident midrange/tweeter mounted in bulls-eye fashion atop the uniquely arched baffle of its beautifully crafted high-density enclosure, the LS50 is as visually arresting as it is sonically satisfying. Imaging is clean and precise. Neutrality is high, with superb midrange sonics, nice presence, potent midbass punch, and very little in the way of port coloration. May be destined to become a classic. A new active version with wireless connectivity (included elsewhere in this Editors’ Choice Awards) expands the LS50’s considerable appeal
Monitor Audio Studio
This stand-mount features dual 4" mid/bass drivers above and below an MPD (micro-pleated diaphragm) tweeter that is based on the tweeter in Monitor Audio’s $30k flagship Platinum PL500 II. The build- and finish-quality are exceptional, with the Studio conveying an upscale vibe. For such small speakers, the Studios have remarkable depth in the lower end, likely helped by the dual mid/bass drivers and the dual slot-loaded ports in the back. The bass is satisfying and controlled, not remotely wooly or bloated. The midrange is gorgeous and lush, with no trace of hardness in the upper registers on vocals. Matching stands are $500 per pair.
Totem Acoustic Sky
Classic Totem through and through—purposeful, clean, seamless, with rigid cabinetry and beautifully finished veneers. Sky touches the ear with a warm, full-bodied musical balance. Given the right room (medium to smallish) and strong amplifier support, the Sky just clears its throat and lets loose, eliciting tuneful bass cues and resonant energy. Hats off to Totem for coaxing big-time performance while harnessing the virtues of speed and transparency from a small two-way.
MarkAudio Sota Cesti B
MarkAudio’s compact two-way Cesti B riveted NG’s attention with uncluttered centerstage clarity and image specificity. Dynamically, the Cesti B was evenhanded, nicely balancing micro and macro. (If vocals are a staple of your listening diet, take note.) The Cesti B conveyed highly resolved inner detail with a sense of immediacy that conjured up the live event, and it scaled images in a very respectable fashion, rather than miniaturizing them as small compacts so often do. It’s aggressively priced, and beautifully executed, to boot. Although a relative newbie as a company, the depth of its engineering bench allows MarkAudio to step up to the plate and perform like a veteran.
Maggie’s first “all-ribbon” (which is to say, “all-quasi-ribbon”) loudspeaker, the 1.7i, easily picks up the mantle of the MG 1.6, JV’s previous choice for the best affordable loudspeaker, by improving upon the 1.6 in every area (particularly overall coherence). Though lacking the bottom octave, from the midbass up it can stand comparison to some of the stalwarts of the ultra-high-end. A superb transducer and real bargain, provided you have enough space to house it and enough amp to drive it.
Elac Navis ARB-51
Elac’s active and elegant three-way compact has a rich, full-bodied midrange with a warm, cozy ambience that is ideal for vocals. Fans of choral music will revel in the clarity of massed voices. Overall, the Elac has a weighty, dynamic, bottom-up sound that suggests a speaker that not only doesn’t need coddling but actually dares you to crank it up. A hallmark of Elac’s active bass is the way it grabs onto rhythm tracks. This is one of the rare small compacts that you don’t have to scale back expectations to enjoy.
GoldenEar Technology Triton Five
Sandy Gross, the proprietor of GoldenEar, may be the Babe Ruth of reasonably priced loudspeaker designs. With the Triton Five, the gregarious Gross has hit yet another one out of the park. The Triton Five is a remarkably low-distortion design that belts out Led Zeppelin but also has the finesse to reproduce the most finely filigreed musical passages. A high-velocity ribbon driver helps account for the purity of the treble. Four side-mounted sub-bass radiators allow it to plumb the depths of the sonic spectrum. Not least, it’s also an elegant and unobtrusive-looking design that should appeal to a wide range of listeners.
Monitor Audio Silver 300
A three-way, four-driver speaker (dual 6" woofers, 4" midrange, 1" tweeter) housed in a cabinet that looks far too nice for this price range, the Silver 300 offers a compelling array of musical virtues. Chief among these is its terrific speed on transients, effortless reproduction of dynamics, and overall sense of musical coherence. The bass is detailed and accurate, providing a clear resolution of pitch. This is one very well designed loudspeaker and a great value.
Revel Performa3 M106
Revel’s M106 is cut from the same rich sonic fabric as its big brother the F206, but designed for smaller spaces. A vocal lover’s dream, the two-way M sports the same dome tweeter with acoustic-lens waveguide as the floorstander, creating a wide sweet spot, a rewarding lack of localization, and estimable composure under all sorts of dynamic fire. Even under punishing conditions this feisty compact remains linear. One of the great compacts of the last ten years.
$2190–$2490 (depending on finish)
This latest version of Alan Shaw’s subcompact monitor is so cannily designed it almost transcends the limitations of its genre. Neutrality and natural tonal balance reign supreme, but this one can also play loud and descend to depths in the bass. Exceptional driver integration, coherence, and openness also characterize the design.
Watkins Stereo Gen Four
Bill Watkins has been perfecting the compact two-way since the early 1980s, and this is by far his best effort. Mating a 6.5" Peerless woofer with a 1" dome tweeter, the Gen Four’s bass extension and control are unheard of in such a small package. Unusually, the woofer is run without a low-pass filter, perhaps contributing to the imaging prowess and transient speed, which are spectacular for any speaker, especially one at this price.
Air Tight Bonsai
The tiny but mighty one-way Bonsai, also known as the AL-05, epitomizes what a single driver can do—in this case, a 4" hand-made paper cone devised by a former JBL engineer. The Bonsai’s exemplary crossover-less design gives the speaker a full-range presence and immediacy and surprising spaciousness that all belie its petite size. Ideal for small-to-mid-sized rooms, the Bonsai’s are capable of reproducing a wide range of music with astounding coherence and emotion.
Axis VoiceBox S
Sonically this li’l two-way with the sweet ribbon tweeter is a robust and agile performer that rings true and authentic. Despite a generally lighter character, there’s still a welcome zone of midrange warmth that keeps it on balance. Imaging and dimensionality are uniformly excellent. The drivers cohere with no apparent presence dip at or around the crossover point. This is one little Aussie that could very well rattle one’s previous expectations for foot-tall two-ways in this range.
Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2
This compact two-way hits it out of the park in sound quality, build, technology, and value. The midrange driver is based on techniques developed for the flagship 800 series, and the new tweeter sits on top of the cabinet for lower diffraction. Among its other virtues, the 705 S2 is seamless and coherent top to bottom, and has surprising dynamic punch and the ability to play loudly for its size. It is a product that few companies would have the ability and resources to match. A great performer and an outstanding bargain.
Eminent Technology LFT-8b
A floorstanding hybrid, combining sealed-box bass with magnetically driven planar membranes (dipolar drive) for midrange and treble, this is one of the lowest distortion speakers ever. The LFT-8b goes up seemingly forever, and down to very near the bottom of audibility in the bass. Ideal listening requires a position close to exactly centered, with the speakers precisely angled, but at the magic spot imaging is superb. In REG’s estimation, one of audio’s all-time amazing bargains.
Nola Boxer 3
The Boxer is an unassuming, two-way, bass-reflex compact with a sound that’s unerringly musical—a canny balance of warmth and detail. Images are vivid, and transient reflexes quick. This is not a shy, recessed presentation, nor is the treble brittle or fatiguing. Except for the slightest presence-range dip, there’s substance to every octave, with very little dynamic compression.
Tannoy Revolution XT 8F
Superficially, this appears to be an ordinary two-way floorstander with an integrated spiked base. But looks, says DO, are deceiving. The star attraction here is a new 8" coaxial driver, said to be a fresh interpretation of Tannoy’s point-source drive-unit philosophy. The coaxial woofer is allowed to work into the deep bass, augmented below 250Hz by a separate 8" woofer. The end result is a superbly cohesive loudspeaker. Expect a colossal and transparent soundstage populated by tightly focused images. The Tannoy offers a virtuoso midrange with transient speed and timbral fidelity that are competitive with speakers approaching $10k retail. A great bargain.
Totem Acoustic Signature One
Totem’s 30th anniversary Signature One includes the largest changes to this iconic model. Sonic performance is classic Totem—a high-revving, high-output character that doesn’t shy away from combustible dynamic swings, or demanding orchestral bass or pop rhythm tracks. Its responsiveness to low-level inputs is where the cabinet’s rigidity pays off; its uncanny ability to vanish within the confines of a small listening room remains a huge part of the Totem résumé. Not merely a quick, peel-out-and-burn-rubber compact, the Signature One has fairly broad shoulders that impart authentic gravitas to recorded music. The Signature One is the widest expression of Totem’s grand quest thus far.
Vandersteen Audio 2Ce Signature II
This classic three-way floorstander delivers excellent top-to-bottom balance and engaging musicality. Moreover, Vandersteen’s baffle-less, time-and-phase-coherent design can suggest the spatial focus usually heard with planars. The 2Ce benefits from bi-wiring and should be placed away from walls.
MartinLogan Motion 60XT
The Motion 60XT is not a perfect loudspeaker, but it does many things not only right, but magnificently, provided a suitable amplifier is used to drive it. It should come as no surprise that the upper midrange and treble are voiced similarly to ML’s ESL models, though with slightly less finesse in the top frequencies. Voices are lifelike, engaging, and captivating. An added benefit of the excellent driver and crossover matching is the realistic lower-midrange/upper-bass performance. The 60XT produces a broad soundstage that exceeds the width of the loudspeakers’ placement, with pinpoint imaging and amazing, three-dimensional depth.