Many people equate the size of a loudspeaker with a commitment to high-end values. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of us live in a world of limits. We don’t have a Gulfstream waiting on the tarmac, a rosso corsa sports car in our palazzo’s garage, or even a small auditorium for our stereo. Fact is, a well-executed smaller speaker of the stand-mounted variety can in many instances get us further down the road toward the musical truth than hi-fi “wisdom” suggests. Consequently, there are more of these real-world speakers on the market today than ever before. But within this extremely popular segment are varietals targeted for specific applications and room sizes. Cases in point: the DALI Mentor Menuet and the Nola Boxer. Both are designed by highly respected companies, both are two-way compacts suitable for smaller environs, yet each fills a distinctive niche.
It’s easy to be fooled by a small speaker that measures a mere 10 inches tall. Don’t be. DALI has jammed a lot of technology into this highly musical, two-way, bass-reflex design. Beautifully crafted, the enclosure has a smoothly curved and seamless front baffle designed to be an acoustically inert platform for the drivers. And DALI installs rubber gaskets to decouple those drivers from the cabinet and provide an airtight seal to it. Internally, the Menuet features a flared upward-angled port, which has been designed to minimize turbulence and reduce port noise. The angled design also permits a longer port, which results in a lower tuning-frequency than what would ordinarily be possible in an enclosure of this volume.
The Menuet borrows its soft dome tweeter from its larger siblings. The tweeter uses an oversized 28mm voice coil rather than the typical 25mm one. Its dome diaphragm is very lightweight, which allows DALI to make the diaphragm substantially larger than the average dome without sacrificing speed. The power-handling of this transducer has been further enhanced via a powerful motor system with a neodymium magnet and back-mounted aluminum heat sink. The 4.5” woofer incorporates DALI’s wood-fiber cone—a technology derived from its flagship Euphonia models. DALI points out that the wood fiber adds stiffness, ensuring non-uniform break-up characteristics.
As I alluded to earlier, the Menuet is designed to fill a specific niche—to be elegant and unobtrusive. Tuned for placement against a rear wall or boundary (shelf- or wall-mounting is also encouraged), it gathers significant mid/upper-bass reinforcement in this position. DALI’s placement recommendations should be scrupulously followed, because once you find the speaker’s sweetspot—about a foot-and-a-half from the rear wall worked wonders in my room—the Menuet sounds most cohesive, gathering energy from the back wall, bulking up in the 50–60Hz range, and finding its inner Superman to yield results that are utterly musical and compelling. With that wall reinforcement there’s more acoustic and ambient recovery going on, particularly with symphonic, chamber, and jazz recordings. Without the reinforcement, the Menuet will have a prevailing balance that could generously be characterized as “light,” lacking in weight and drive.
The Menuet embodies a size-defying sense of tonal refinement and restraint that too often goes missing in this segment. This particular mini doesn’t push excess treble energy at the listener, nor does it try to reach beyond the physical limits of its small bass transducer. The Menuet is truly expressive in its handling of vocals. It’s fast and coherent, able to elicit details from a cappella singer Laurel Massé on Feather & Bone [Premonition]—from her dark chest resonances to her rich breathy top octaves. The speaker is capable of sustained high output, yet remains very controlled. In tonal balance, it’s civilized, even a bit polite in the upper mids, but has no precipitous dips, spikes, or ridges. Yes, the presentation is lighter weight, something that lends the “air” in the upper octaves a drier, more papery texture and that smudges harmonic detail a trifle. Foundation-rattling bass is clearly out of the question, and dynamically it’s no hell-raiser. These constraints dampen the large-scale liveliness of the Menuet, although it does a beautiful job reproducing midrange and treble micro-dynamics.
However, those interested in the intimacy of a quasi-nearfield experience will discover a whole new relationship with the Menuet. Up close and personal with the Menuet, you’ll discovers a fifth gear. It shines in this environment; closer proximity means you can ramp down big-room playback levels, resulting in more open dynamics, greater soundstage depth, and finer detail. The Menuet really begins to dance rhythmically and vanishes from the soundstage without a trace. Orchestral scale is miniaturized—no big surprise—but this is easy to adapt to given the enhanced sense of weight, dynamic thrust, and pressurization in the nearfield environment. I developed a great fondness for the musical honesty of the DALI Mentor Menuet. To be sure, it’s a small-space/nearfield specialist, but for those desiring a sweet taste of the high end without hijacking the room, my highest recommendation goes this bite-sized and big-hearted Danish treat.
Nola Boxer: Whatever Nola Wants
For high-end aficionados, Nola needs little introduction. Its open-baffle dipole designs, which include the Baby Grand and the majestic four-tower flagship, the Grand Reference IV.1, are the stuff of dreams for many of us. Music is reproduced on such a transparent and forceful scale that even the most jaded will listen with rapt attention. The good news for those just starting up in the high end is that veteran designer and Nola president Carl Marchisotto has an equally deft touch with small affordable speakers, as Nola’s latest effort, the Boxer, clearly attests.
At barely fifteen-inches tall the Boxer is an unassuming, blue-collar two-way compact in a bass-reflex enclosure—it’s also the only box speaker that Nola makes. The Boxer’s loaded by a rear-firing twin-flared port for low distortion and noise. It incorporates a low-mass 6.5” bass/midrange driver with a laminated pulp cone. The high-frequency driver is a high-resolution silk dome tweeter. The crossover is a shallow-slope design using high-purity polypropylene caps, air-core inductors, and 2% metal-film resistors. It incorporates the same vibration-isolated, hand-wired crossover as Nola’s bigger models and the same passive components used in Nola’s $22,000 Metro Grand. It is assembled by hand with point-to-point wiring, using a proprietary low-loss oxygen-free copper wire.
The physical profile of the Boxer may be working class, but, oh my, does this baby play uptown. Its overall sonic character is unerringly musical, midrange-ripe with a fine balance of warmth and detail and the propulsive energy of a finely-honed athlete. Its presentation is not shy or recessed; its treble isn’t brittle or fatiguing. There’s substance to every octave with no energy suck-outs. The result is a wide-range dynamic transducer that is always musically truthful. The soundstage is very large and open, yet has excellent focus. The Boxer also exhibits the moves you’d expect of a smart two-way—vivid images, quick transient responses, and the kind of resolution I encountered on Lyle Lovett’s “North Dakota” from Joshua Judges Ruth [Curb], where the soft vocal harmonies and parallel melodic lines snapped into focus at even the lowest levels.
But what makes the Boxer so special is the extent to which Marchisotto has transported the qualities of his large-scale, open-baffle designs into such a petite box. There’s much the same characteristic air and openness without any boxiness—not surprising given Marchisotto’s history of designing iconic dipole speakers for the likes of Dahlquist and Alon. For much of the Boxer’s sonic excellence, the credit must go to its exemplary mid/upper bass, which was solid and tight and extended in my room. Unlike many compacts that can’t punch their way out of paper bags, the Boxer has enough drive to recreate orchestral-style weight, soundstage cues, and concert-hall immersiveness. During the opening segment of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major with Anne Sophie-Mutter [DG], the Boxer immediately conveyed the way the orchestra wakes up the hall’s acoustic. And during Jen Chapin’s rendition of “Renewable” from ReVisions [Chesky], the Boxer punched outside of its weight class, reproducing the dueling baritone sax and standup bass with dynamic authenticity. It should be noted that the large port outputs a great deal of energy, so distance from the rear wall does require some experimentation.
Ultimately the Boxer, like every other speaker, has limits. When over-driven, the port’s tuning will intrude and thicken the mix—the lowest notes of cello or brass or plucked bass viols become less well defined, somewhat reducing timbral clarity and low-level decay.
Any major issues? Not really, and the trade-offs—such as they are—are honest and distributed with a subtlety that doesn’t dampen the quality and intensity of the Boxer’s overall performance. In the vocal ranges I noted a small presence-range droop, a hint of sibilance, and, as was to be expected, a bit of compression during high-octane flurries of percussion. During Glinka’s The Lark [RCA], the solo piano’s energy and air were not always fully reproduced; as a result lower midrange arpeggios were dynamically a bit muted, and the treble octaves slightly glassy.
Post review, I asked Marchisotto about the challenges of designing at this price point: “The keys are the midrange and midbass areas. We aim for a clear dimensional midrange with as much ‘air’ as we can get and a naturally dynamic, clean midbass. Many designs today compress the midbass in order to attain more apparent detail. I find these designs tiring to listen to, as they are not musical, regardless of the other sonic characteristics provided.” In my view, mission accomplished—a designer after my own listening biases.
The Nola Boxer exemplifies what a budget two-way compact should be. Easy to underestimate, it’s the kind of ringer that doesn’t telegraph its intentions until the bell sounds. That’s when you realize you’ve placed your bet on a winner—and that the competition had better duck and take cover.
SPECS & PRICING
DALI Mentor Menuet
Type: Two-way bass-reflex dynamic loudspeaker
Driver complement: One 4.5” woofer, one 1.1” tweeter
Frequency response: 59Hz–25kHz
Nominal impedance: 4 ohms
Recommended amplifier power: 20–100 watts
Dimensions: 5.9” x 9.8” x 9”
Weight: 8.2 lbs. (net each)
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