TAS Speaker Buyer's Guide 2009: desktop to stand mounted

Equipment report
TAS Speaker Buyer's Guide 2009: desktop to stand mounted

Although "serious" listening is generally assumed to take place in a comfy listening chair, with the lights turned low and no other distractions, such a luxury is not only increasingly harder to enjoy in this busy world, it ignores the fact that many of us do a lot of music listening either at work while sitting in front of our computers, or on the go via an iPod or other portable device. We can either choose to ignore this reality, or make the best of it while having some fun discovering the most musically satisfying desktop speakers, iPod-based systems, and in- and over-ear headphones.
While the following Buyer’s Guides are hardly exhaustive, they represent the top of the class as we see it. 

Desktop Speakers - The Best

Ferguson-hill Fh007/Fh008
This is the oddest-looking, largest, and most expensive PC speaker anyone is likely to encounter. Yet when the music starts, there is no sense of speakers being present. The soundstage can be grand, imaging is wondrous, and the superb FH008 subwoofer integrates beautifully with the 007 mains. The highs roll off too soon, but the F-H exhibits remarkable high-end traits for a desktop speaker. Reviewed by Alan Taffel, Issue 181

Role Audio Kayak
The Role Kayaks can totally vanish while creating a seamlessly convincing soundstage. Although you won’t find that the Kayak puts out a ton of lower midrange and upper bass, it still manages to achieve a surprisingly neutral harmonic balance. Sure, it errs toward the lean side, yet it never sounds pinched, shrill, or stressed, even at high volume levels. Steven Stone

Aperion Audio Intimus 4B
Given their size, you’d expect the 4Bs to image well, and image they do. Their ability to disappear rivals the equally diminutive Role Kayaks. The 4Bs manage to include a smooth natural lower treble with adequate upper frequency air. The 4" woven fiberglass driver goes deeper than its predecessor (the 422RL), and plays louder with few signs of distress. Steven Stone

Altec Lansing FX-6021
These tall, slim affairs, each with six 1" micro-drivers, create an astonishingly realistic soundstage, while the under-the-desk subwoofer produces tight, if slightly boomy bass. Music through these Altecs is never anchored to the speakers; instead, in the best high-end tradition, it floats between the satellites. And that soundstage is not flat—it has real depth. Further, resolution and dynamics are both stunning. Reviewed by Alan Taffel, Issue 181

Acoustic Energy Aego M
Built by British speaker designer Acoustic Energy, the Aego M is significantly better than a stock PC speaker. Even with MP3 source material, the Aego has enough dynamic range to be dramatic. Vocals are clear, and resolution is quite high. With higher quality sources, the Aego rises to the occasion, creating air and at least a vague 2-D soundstage. Reviewed by Alan Taffel, Issue 181

iPod Speaker Systems - The Best

B&W Zeppelin
The Zeppelin is the best-sounding and coolest-looking iPod speaker system we’ve heard. The unusual shape is the ideal acoustical platform for the system’s dual 3.5" midrange drivers, 1" tweeter, and single 5" woofer. Throw
in advanced digital signal processing along with five separate amplifiers (150W total) and you have one serious music-making machine. Reviewed by Robert Harley, Issue 178

Sierra Sound in Studio 5.0
Made from a rigid composite material that’s available in black, white, or Ferrari red, the two-way Studio 5.0 features a built-in 50W amplifier, and has an iPod dock laid into the right speaker, as well as rear-mounted connections
for USB, and AC, if, say, you want to hook up an Apple Airport Express and stream wirelessly from your computer. Wayne Garcia

Polk i-Sonic
This tabletop marvel plays CDs and DVDs, receives FM and XM satellite radio, and has inputs for external sources such as portable music players. But best of all, the i-Sonic sounds terrific, with an extremely neutral and uncolored tonal balance. The bass goes surprisingly deep, and the treble is highly refined and silky smooth. Reviewed by RH, Issue 169

Meridian F80
Arguably the world’s coolest table radio, Meridian’s little Ferrari-industrial-designed F80 combines a CD/DVD player, AM/FM tuner, 80-Wpc amplifier, high-tech speakers, and Meridian’s acclaimed Digital Signal Processing
technology into one sweet package. That skims the surface. Play some favorite tunes through the F80, and prepare to
be blown away by the sound from this amazing portable audio/video sound system. Reviewed by WG, Issue 179

Earbuds - The Best

Denon AH-C700
Denon’s top-of-the-line in-ear headphones offer quick, nuanced response to musical transients, creating an impression of unforced, natural clarity. Although perhaps just slightly forward in the midrange, the AH-C700s have a generally neutral tonal balance, and provide a “just right” amount of bass—enough to sound punchy and full-bodied without overdoing it. CM

Skullcandy Titan
More so than most other in-ear headphones anywhere near this price range, EHT Titans serve up a sweet combination of near-neutral tonal balance, good dynamic punch, and an unexpected big helping of sonic subtlety and detail—especially in the midrange, where most of the music happens. The bass is a bit overripe, but that’s a nitpick given how many things these do so well for so little money. Chris Martens, Playback, May 2008

Etymotic Er4p and Er4S
$299 each
Etymotic’s iPod-friendly ER4P’s have greater sensitivity and bass output than other ER4 models (the ER4s is more accurate, but harder to drive). From the lower midrange on up, the ER4P’s convey truly impressive transparency and
clarity, plus bass that’s reasonably warm and full—provided you insert them deeply enough into your ear canal to
achieve a good seal. CM

Klipsch Custom 3
Klipsch’s Custom-3 is one of the most pure, transparent, open-voice in-ear headphones we know of. While it isn’t cheap, the tonal balance is quite neutral, and the Custom-3 reproduces everything from the top to the bottom of the musical spectrum with vibrant tone colors (though some might wish for just a bit more bass). CM, Playback, May 2008

Shure E5c/SE530
In an era when “ear bud” headphones are a dime-a-dozen, how can Shure sell a $500 model? Because the E5c offers stunning sonic performance that elevates the portable-audio experience to a new level. When combined with a good outboard headphone amplifier, the E5c has electrostatic-like resolution, surprising bass extension, and outstanding clarity. Reviewed by RH, Issue 155

Headphones - The Best

Grado SR60
The Mighty Mouse of headphones, Grado’s SR60 boasts superb midrange transparency and natural dynamics. Treble is well-balanced, though not quite as smooth or refined as in some higher-priced designs. Bass is well-defined, but rolls off a bit early. The SR60 can also be driven directly from an Apple iPod or other digital player. While they are comfortable, keep in mind that as an “open air” design the SR60 isn’t ideal for noisy environments. Reviewed by TM.

These beautifully built and technically advanced headphones combine excellent sound quality with the best noise-canceling process available. The MDR-500D employs sophisticated DSP that analyzes the noise source and contours the cancellation signal for maximum noise attenuation. The audio signal is digitized and DSP processed. Built-in rechargeable lithium battery lasts for hours. RH

AKG 501
The combination of transducer distance and the open construction of the AKG provides a spaciousness and link with the greater room environment that we like. It’s one of the least claustrophobic of headphones, too, creating the perception of sound traveling from a more distant point rather than mainlining directly into the ear. Neil Gader TAS

Grado GS1000
gradolabs .com
An open air dynamic design that is comfort personified and built for long listening sessions. Your ears will never feel more coddled than with these luxury foam ’phones from the maestros at Grado Labs. They’re terrific for low-level listening with an unforgettably mind-expanding soundstage. A bit laid-back and relaxed, so not for tonal neutrality freaks. The full coverage ear pads can get a bit warm for some users. Reviewed by NG, Issue 178

Bose Quietcomfort 2
The overall octave-to-octave balance of the Quietcomfort ’phones is quite good, and transparency is fairly high. Tom Martin rates them on a par in pure musicality with some of the better Sennheisers. And they have noise cancellation, which TM considers a must when in transit. Reviewed by Tom Martin, Issue 166

Stand-Mounted Speakers - The Best

PSB Alpha B1
The PSB Alpha B1’s recent nips and tucks include a refinement of the 1" dome tweeter for greater bandwidth and smoother dispersion; a redesigned woofer to reduce breakup modes; a larger port opening; and “lifestyle” contouring that creates a more curvaceous Alpha. The results are mind-bending dynamics and rich mids in a two-way package barely a foot tall. With a predominantly honest voice that strikes a judicious balance between articulation and extension, the B1’s midbass has remarkable power and pitch definition at this price, but it can’t move air or fully articulate the lowest octave like a larger design. Reviewed by NG, Issue 170

B&W 685
From B&W’s custom-built factory in China, the 685 is an amazing small two-way monitor that will please lovers of refinement as well as power.  With a 1" aluminum dome Nautilus tweeter and 6" woven Kevlar mid/bass driver, the 685 has tremendous rhythmic authority, an open soundstage, impressive bass response, a singing treble, plays loudly without strain, and, thanks to a forward-firing port, can be mounted on the wall, shelf, or stand. A slight, lingering edge in the very upper treble makes it both exciting to listen to, as well as slightly sharp with female voices.  Reviewed by Wayne Garcia, Issue 176

Paradigm Signature S1
$1499 (up to $1699, depending on finish)
The smallest of Paradigm’s “Reference Signature Series,” the two-way S1 features a 1" pure beryllium dome tweeter and a 6" mid/bass driver in a tiny, sealed enclosure fabricated of die-cast aluminum. Because the S1s are so small, some might pass on them in favor of a larger more physically impressive model. That would be a mistake. For its size and price the S1 delivers more pure performance than any speaker I’ve heard. Mated with a high-quality subwoofer, the S1 can transform a small room into a sonic space as impressive as the Grand Canyon. Reviewed by Steven Stone, Issue 184

Sunfire CRM-2
$800 each (plus mandatory Sunfire subwoofer)
The Bob Carver-designed CRM-2 packs a 5' ribbon driver into an enclosure you can hold in the palm of your hand. Augmented by dual 4.5" side-firing bass/midrange drivers, the CRM-2 offers the seamless coherence, transient quickness, and low coloration inherent to ribbons, with a spectacular soundstage that creates a huge and beautifully delineated acoustic. Although tiny, the CRM-2 will play as loudly as many floorstanding speakers. Careful setup is essential, and it must be used with a Sunfire subwoofer. The CRM-2 delivers a “big speaker” sound from a tiny
and unobtrusive package. Reviewed by Robert Harley, Issue 183

Vienna Acoustics Haydn Grand 
sumikoaudio .net
Vienna Acoutics’ sumptuously built two-way boasts exquisite fit and finish, and a natural tonal balance that’s akin to larger speakers. Much of the credit goes to the proprietary low mass, high-damping/rigidity 6" mid-bass driver, while a 1" silk dome tweeter is assigned treble duty. The front baffle is a massive 1.25" thick affair—a rarity in a speaker not much larger than a humidor. The result is a speaker of uncanny dynamic poise, tightly defined midbass, natural transient response, and an authoritative midrange voicing that far exceeds its modest physical size. Reviewed by NG, Issue 176

Harbeth HL-P3ES-2
The latest version of Harbeth’s subcompact monitor is so cannily designed it almost transcends the limitations of the mini-monitor genre. With the HL-P3ES-2, tonal neutrality and a natural tonal-balance reign supreme, but this speaker can also play to loudness levels and descend to depths in the bass that leave both the original LS3/5a and its other British derivatives panting at the post. Paul Seydor, review forthcoming 

Totem The One
A fitting salute to the company’s 20th Anniversary, Totem’s limited edition The One is a superb two-way monitor loudspeaker. The cabinet is gorgeously built and finished, and houses a 1" aluminum dome tweeter and a 5.5" bass/midrange driver boasting a 3" voice-coil. The One delivers an exceptionally coherent sound with a large and holographic soundfield, a defined yet never too bright treble, and surprising wallop in the bass. The midrange is warm and natural, with essentially no sound from the enclosure. Most importantly, The One grabs your emotions, making for addictive listening experiences. Reviewed by WG, Issue 184

Focal Electra 1007 Be and Focal Micro Utopia Be
$4400 and $8500
A little tipped toward the treble in balance, the port-loaded, two-way, Beryllium-tweeter’d Electra1007 Be’s are models of transparency and resolution, with simply phenomenal soundstaging and superb transient response in the mids and treble. The twice-as-expensive, two-way Micro Utopia Be uses better parts and cabinetry, and its richer bass and plusher timbre create a more sophisticated, fully balanced sound, without the slight top-tippiness and overall leanness of the 1007Be. Reviewed by Jonathan Valin, Issue 176

Usher Be-718
This stand-mounted speaker packs a lot of performance into a compact package. Bass extension is surprisingly deep and robust from the 7” woofer, and the beryllium tweeter is clean, sweet, extended, and highly resolving. The Be-718’s treble reproduction is notable for its lack of grain and glare, even when pushed hard. The spatial presentation is spectacular; build-quality is first-rate. The Be-718 is best for small and medium-sized rooms unless you add a subwoofer. The front-firing port allows for placement near a wall. Reviewed by RH, Issue 176

Sonus Faber Cremona Auditor M
$5800 (floor stand, $1200)
The original Auditor—now in an updated Auditor M version—might lack the deep bass and some of the sheer
output of its floorstanding brother the Cremona, but it brings to the table a greater sense of top-to-bottom coherence, sharper imaging, and lower levels of cabinet resonance. At roughly fourteen inches tall this lute-shaped, masterfully crafted two-way, bass-reflex design has explosive dynamics and expressive tonal and textural richness to match its precise and layered soundstage. The optional “mermaid” stand should be considered a must-buy to extract the nuance and resolution from this mini-marvelous package. Reviewed by WG, Issue 146

Widely respected for its professional line of powered monitors, ATC’s premium compact is the two-way SCM20-2. It features bulletproof construction and high power handling. The sealed enclosure uses a 1" soft dome Scanspeak Revelator tweeter and a massively constructed 6.5" proprietary mid-bass. Highly accurate, it reveals the sonic truth in vocals and solo instrumentation. The mid-bass is pitch perfect, but because there’s little in the way of a bottom octave orchestral scale is reduced. Reviewed by NG, Issue 154

Pioneer S2-EX
The S2-EX’s character bridges the divide between the audiophile tradition and the pro-monitor world. Its coincident midrange/Beryllium tweeter is one of the industry’s most sophisticated transducers—stunningly fast and tonally accurate. The upper bass and lower midrange never seem to run short of reserves. It can play prodigiously loud yet communicates a precision geared to resolve details at all levels, micro and macro. Reviewed by NG, Issue 169

For the rest of The Absolute Sound's Buyer's Guide 2009, please purchase the November 2008 issue, here.