The Absolute Sound Buyer's Guide to Floorstanding Loudspeakers Part 1 - Under $20k (TAS 207)

Equipment report
The Absolute Sound Buyer's Guide to Floorstanding Loudspeakers Part 1 - Under $20k (TAS 207)

The annual Buyer's Guide Issue is packed with our top recommendations in every product category and at every price. We’ve carefully selected the crème de la crème from the vast array of products on the market and then written mini-reviews of each component. The number at the end of each entry indicates the issue of The Absolute Sound in which the full review appeared.

You can read Part 2 of the Buyer's Guide to Loudspeakers here.

Magnepan MMG

Magnepan’s smallest planar-magnetic (available factory-direct only), the Product of the Year award-winning MMG, is one of the best buys in the Maggie line, and one of the real bargains in high-end audio. If you have enough space and amplifier, you will be hard-pressed to find more realistic speaker than this slim, boxless Maggie, where it plays. Though it won’t plumb the depths in the bottom end and is a bit limited in the top treble and in really large-scale dynamics, it is otherwise a model of lifelike presence, tone color, texture, and imaging. (121, 177)

PSB Image T6

The PSB Image T6s offer a very high level of sonic performance for their price: extended bass with serious output in-room down to below 40Hz, naturally warm sound a little further up (where floorstanders often dip), a largely neutral midrange, and a clean treble. The T6s play more loudly without significant distortion or compression than expected from speakers this size. The treble is a little bit up in the 4-6kHz range and the high treble is a little exaggerated and irregular. But all in all, the T6s sound surprisingly like actual music, as speakers go. The slight treble irregularities and a subtle lack of midrange smoothness makes the sound a little less refined than certain higher-priced models, including some from PSB. But if you listened without knowing the price, you would likely be stunned to find that the T6s cost only $1250 per pair.

Monitor Audio Silver RX8

Monitor’s Silver RX8 floorstanders provide technologies drawn from Monitor’s Gold Series models, but a significantly lower price. They make great transitional speakers for those who are seeking far better than entry-level sound quality, yet do not have huge sums of money to spend. Positive characteristics include fundamentally neutral tonal balance, excellent transient speed, surprisingly high levels of resolution, and superb imaging. The RX8s are revealing and easy to drive, though they are, of course, sensitive to amplifier quality. Voiced for use in mid-to-large rooms, the RX8s may need their included foam port dampers installed to prevent bass overload in smaller rooms. (TAS 203)

Magnepan 1.7

Prior to the advent of this new, all-quasi-ribbon Maggie, JV thought its predecessor, the MG 1.6, was the single best buy in high-end loudspeakers. For him, the 1.7 now takes that coveted title, improving on the 1.6 in just about every area save for the low bass (which, like that of the 1.6, isn’t really that low). From about 45-50Hz up, however, you will be hard put to find a more realistic transducer than the 1.7 for anything short of Magico money. Stunning coherence, transparency, detail, timbre, soundstaging, imaging—you name it. Just be sure to bring enough amp to the party—and enough space to keep the 1.7s away from sidewalls and backwalls. And be aware that above a certain very loud level, the quasi-ribbon drivers will begin to show audible signs of strain, though the 1.7s will fare better at low listening levels than any previous Maggie. (205)

Vandersteen 2Ce Signature II/3A Signature

The Vandersteen 2 is the classic three-way floorstander, delivering excellent top-to-bottom balance and an engaging musicality. Moreover, Vandersteen’s baffle-less, time-and-phase-coherent design can suggest the spatial focus usually heard with planars. It benefits from bi-wiring and should be placed away from walls. The first-order crossovers essential to the time-coherent performance somewhat limit maximum sound-pressure level. Like all Vandersteens, the Golden Ear Award winning 3A Signature is time-and-phase accurate. Its driver complement features the patented midrange and tweeter used in the vaunted Vandersteen 5. The 3A Signature has a relaxed presentation, is musically seductive, and will appeal to those who want to forget about the sound and enjoy the music, though it does trade off some dynamic contrast and midrange resolution for its overall ability to involve the listener. (139, 122)

Dynaudio Excite 32

Sounding surprisingly large for its relatively small dimensions and driver compliment, the Excite X32 also delivers a fair amount of detail and dynamic impact at its price. The details come across as well integrated into a musical whole that also blends tonal colors and a sense of weight quite well. While it can't keep up with more expensive Dynaudio speakers like the Confidence C1 in areas of soundstage size and that sense of a continuously layered musical event, the X32's main attraction is its engaging, compelling musical verve. (205)

PSB Synchrony Two

A sonic extrovert, with a dark voluptuous tonality that reaches deep into the lower midrange and bottom octaves, the Synchrony Two offers bone-rattling, dynamic excitement. Equally at home with a solo violin, a thundering concert grand, or a quick-wristed drum solo, the Synch Two may be the ideal solution for audiophiles who thought they could only afford a light-weight stand-mount speaker but secretly harbored the desire for some heavyweight slam. This sleek tower is a five-driver, two-way, bass-reflex design, but since two of its woofers high pass to the tweeter at differing frequencies, the Synchrony conveys a seamless coherence close to the point-source ideal. A slight dip in the presence range and some residual lag in the bass can be ameliorated with attention to room setup, but make no mistake: This is a finely tuned loudspeaker at ease in the company of much higher-priced (177)

Magnepan 3.6

Although it’s getting a little long in the tooth, the MG 3.6 is still the least expensive way to buy into Maggie’s “true ribbon” technology—and that true ribbon tweeter really is something. Treble-range speed, color, transparency, resolution, and extension are virtually nonpareil. As is the case with Maggie’s other true ribbons, the blend of that sterling tweet with the 3.6’s other quasi-ribbon and planar-magnetic drivers isn’t quite as seamless as it is with, say, the 1.7’s all-quasi-ribbon complement of drivers, but on most music you’ll be too enthralled to notice. Maggies just sound real in a way that most other speakers, planar or dynamic, don’t. Once again, bring enough amp—and make sure you have enough room for these largish panels.

Reference 3A Episode

The acclaimed Grand Veena’s smaller brother, featuring the same 1** silk dome and Murata super tweeter, is a complete package. Well-engineered and executed, it sounds coherent and musical—felicitous on female voice and harmonic colors. And you don’t get cheated at the frequency extremes. In particular, bass definition and extension are excellent—as good as they get at this price point. When driven within its dynamic comfort zone, the overall presentation can best be characterized as eminently listenable—lively and engaging without being assertive. At its asking price, the Episode represents a superb deal for music lovers and audiophiles alike. (200)

Sonus faber Liuto

Sonus faber’s three-way vented, Liuto floorstander preserves Sonus’ classic lute-shaped styling but with a cleaner more contemporary look. Its sound is a heady combination of warmth and detail, with some very earthy 30Hz low-frequency extension. It’s not as fast with transients as some, but is full of the va-va-voom sensuousness that has come to embody Sonus offerings. It really turns up the heat on the competition with vividly rendered string-section layering, superior microdynamic interplay, and outstanding depth cues. In a word the Liuto is sheer abbondanza. The Liuto may not possess the last scintilla of nuance but it’s a high voltage performer–and dollar for dollar–maybe the best speaker in the Sonus family. (199)

DALI Helicon 400 Mk. II

An unconventional four-driver, three-way, bass-reflex design. One of the woofers crosses over normally at 3kHz to a 1** silk dome tweeter. The other woofer rolls in gently below 700Hz, the Helicon’s baffle-step frequency, to maintain a realistic tonal balance through the lower midrange and upper bass. Expect a full-bodied balance and solid in-room bass extension to about 30Hz. It’s not the kind of speaker that will necessarily wow you during a quick audition. It lacks the sort of attention-grabbing hyped-up balance that some audiophiles are attracted to like moths to a flame. With the proper toe-in, and after an extended break-in period, plan to just kick back and enjoy the music. You may have been seduced by various speakers over the years, had your fling, only to wake up the morning after with nagging doubts. This is a speaker you can “marry” for life. It earned DO’s two-thumbs-up recommendation. (205)

Ref 3A Grand Veena

The floorstanding, near-crossover-less, five-driver, four-way Reference 3A’s Grand Veena is an impressive evolution (and validation) of Reference’s conceptual approach, a genuine flagship. It is also an impressively neutral, tractable, and versatile performer that promises to deliver its full potential in a wide variety of systems and settings. Perhaps most impressive of all is its engaging musicality, the effortless way it seems to pull you into music as different as Bela Fleck and Bela Bartók, Franz Schubert and Franz Ferdinand. There are two threads of authenticity running through the Grand Veena: its feel for the music and its realization of the hi-fi promise. It delivers the first by delivering on the second. If you want music at home—real music—Roy Gregory says you need look no further than Reference 3A’s Grand Veena. No floorstander that he’s heard near the price is anywhere near as much fun. (HiFi+, May 2008)

Esoteric MG20

$8200 (with stands)
Forget British mini-monitors, says DO. This three-driver two-way design provides the best pinpoint imaging and soundstage cohesiveness in DO’s experience. The drivers feature magnesium-alloy diaphragms. (Esoteric feels that magnesium provides better internal energy dissipation than aluminum or titanium.) In addition, the woofer cone is corrugated and damped with two thin coatings for enhanced resonance control. The MG20 is unquestionably a musically compelling performer, with exceptional coherence, and ’stat-like transient speed and resolution. Nicely balanced with sufficient mid- and upper-bass energy to properly flesh out the power range of an orchestra. But deep-bass extension is limited to about 50Hz, and a subwoofer is recommended for low-end augmentation. Expect to experiment with toe-in angle for best soundstaging and treble balance. The best overall compromise, reports DO, maybe be a toe-in angle that intersects the tweeter axes in front of the listening seat. Requires at least 40Wpc. (177)

KEF Reference 203/2

The 203/2 is medium-sized floorstander in a three-way, four-driver, bass-reflex configuration. It occupies the sweetspot in KEF’s prestigious Reference line and except for the last bit of bottom-octave extension provides a full-throttle, full-range experience. However it’s the latest generation of KEF’s proprietary coincident midrange/tweeter, the Uni-Q, that provides the star power. This colorful yet uncolored and focused transducer permits timing, dynamics, and harmonics to come to full boil. Timbres ring with authority and authenticity. There’s a reassuring bloom to lower brass and winds and especially to trombones, and on occasion, a darker personality that can thicken the midrange. Beautifully constructed, the 203/2 features Uni-Balance—adjustments to modulate bass output and a brightness control to compensate for a room’s treble-absorption characteristics. It’s a loudspeaker that exhibits a special brand of naturalism that goes right to the heart of the pursuit of the high end. (204)

Magnepan 20.1

The first thing the experienced listener is going to note upon listening to Magnepan’s true-ribbon/planar-magnetic flagship 20.1 is its remarkable freedom from colorations, says HP. The speaker is neither warm nor cold, yin nor yang. Its most addictive qualities are its even top-to-bottom tonal balance and realistic portrayal of the soundfield in which the recording was made. Not only does the acoustic space sound lifelike, so do the sizes and placement of instruments on the stage. And unlike most speakers, the space and performers sit at a realistic height relative to your listening position—neither lower than stage height nor beaming down on you as if suspended from the rafters. While no home sound system can truly convince you that a life-sized orchestra is laid out beforeyou, the 20.1s come closer than most, and in this regard compete with speakers at any price. Because of the 20.1’s size, you will need a large room—and a powerful amplifier. (159)

Quad 2905

Although JV would love to own $32k Magico Mini IIs or $89k Magico M5s, in the real world these large Quads—the biggest full-range electrostats that the company has made—are one of the high-end speakers he would (and could afford to) buy. No, they aren’t the last word in dynamic range, deep bass, or top treble. And, no, they don’t disappear like mini-monitors. All they do is sound real, incredibly detailed, and ravishingly beautiful on virtually any kind of music at low-to-medium-loud volumes. The 2905s should be set well away from walls to avoid aggravating a gemütlich bump in their mid-to-upper bass that makes their bottom end sound rich, full, and deeper than it really is. Very low in sensitivity, they need amps with moderate power and current (the 100Wpc AirTight ATM-3 is a good choice). Just don’t drive the 2905s too hard; they’ll clip above 95-100dB SPLs. (186)

Sonus Faber Cremona M/Elipsa

The latest addition to the Cremona family, the Cremona M retains the lute-shaped form that Sonus Faber popularized in its flagship Amati and Guarneri models. In character it is powerful and passionate with the rich, warm signature that’s become an SF tradition. Some may opt for a more austere, detail-oriented speaker, but the Cremona is no wallflower, offering pure harmonic sophistication joined to an impressively linear dynamic range at all orchestral levels, even at taxing high-output/low-frequency crescendos. It achieves the kind of top-to-bottom coherence that makes the magic happen. At the pinnacle of the Cremona family is Elipsa. Roughly 2/3 the size and half the cost of the Homage flagship, Stradivari, the sonic bloodline is still evident. It’s heard in the pace and timing, the ravishing tonal colors, the seductive liquidity. WG confirms that it’s “a loudspeaker that speaks to the heart as well as to the mind.” (173)

Thiel CS3.7

This four-driver, three-way floorstander is the best speaker yet from one of the world’s top designers, with major breakthroughs in driver design (the woofer and midrange use copper-stabilized, short-coil motor systems that produce 10% of the distortion of conventional motors, and their diaphragms are “wave-shaped” aluminum), overall technology (the midrange and tweeter are mounted coincidentally), and build-quality for the money. More important, it boasts reference-quality sound with flat frequency response, superb resolution and transients, bass depth and power-handling just short of the most expensive super-speakers, and excellent soundstaging and imaging. One of the most coherent speakers around without a touch of romance or exaggerated highs, it is not going to be the speaker for all people. (Its accuracy can sometimes seem a bit “clinical,” given the brightness and close-miking of far too many modern recordings.) However, in reviewer AHC’s view, the CS3.7 is a landmark design, making significant advances in coherence, transparency, and sonic detail, and in providing the advantages of true point-source imaging and soundstaging. (186)

Vandersteen Model 5A

The multiple Golden Ear Award-winning 5A is a relative bargain among statement loudspeakers, delivering a level of performance commensurate with (and in some ways, superior to) many more expensive products. The 5A has stunning bass extension, power, and dynamics, courtesy of its massive 12" powered push-pull woofer. Moreover, an ingenious built-in equalizer and custom measurement instrument allow your dealer to flatten bass peaks and dips, resulting in smooth powerful bass with very low coloration. The 5A’s integral amplifier relieves your power amplifier of the burden of driving the woofer, making the 5A an easy load. It can be driven with as little as 100Wpc, and sounds exquisite with tube power. The time-and-phase-coherent design confers a truth in timbre and outstanding soundstaging. The 5A is one of those speakers that allows you to immediately connect with the music. It may not play as loudly as some competitors, but it offers superior performance in other respects. (139)

Magico V2

Experiencing the V2 is to understand discipline–no input derails or upsets its cool composure. Vital are its keen sensitivity to low-level secondary details and to dynamics that are often breathtaking. There’s a subconscious sense of ultra-low distortion and effortless resolution and transparency. Although understated visually this mid-sized, two- and-a-half-way acoustic-suspension design digs deeper into the sonic picture, past the gauze and glaze that impede transparency. It truly begins to shine when you start throwing complexities its way. The V2 is acrobatically gifted in the way it manages to keep so much music in the air without dropping a note. The V2 forces one to reconsider the entire micro/macro-dynamic relationship, which to NG makes it the speaker to deal with in the under-$20k bracket. The totality of execution is nothing short of superb. (202)

YG Acoustics Carmel

Although the two-way, floorstanding Carmel is YG Acoustics’ least expensive model, its high-end credentials are beyond reproach. The speakers offer enclosures precision-machined from heat-treated aircraft aluminum, highly modified drivers of Scandinavian provenance, and crossovers sporting a (literal) wealth of Mundorf parts. Moreover, YG’s proprietary CAD software helps optimize both phase and frequency response. Geared for use in small-to-mid-sized rooms, the Carmels are accomplished performers. First, they provide exceedingly smooth, neutrally balanced, near-full-range frequency response, with useful bass extension into the mid-30Hz region. Next, they offer great transient speed, delightful tonal purity, superb resolution, and tightly focused imaging. Finally, the pièce de résistance is their eerily realistic 3-D soundstaging. Provided you don’t play them too loudly, the Carmels are musical charmers of the first rank. (TAS review pending)

You can read Part 2 of the Buyer's Guide to Loudspeakers here.