The Absolute Sound Buyer's Guide to Stand-Mounted Speakers (TAS 207)

Equipment report
Categories:
Stand-mount
The Absolute Sound Buyer's Guide to Stand-Mounted Speakers (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.

PSB Alpha B1

$279
One of the high end’s most venerated featherweights, the recently redesigned and curvaceous Alpha B1combines mind-bending dynamics and rich mids in a speaker barely a foot tall. The 1” dome tweeter has been refined for greater bandwidth and smoother dispersion, the all-new woofer redesigned to reduce breakup modes. Even the midbass has power and pitch-definition rarely found in this modest price range. Only the nebulous soundstaging is less than excellent. Ultimately, the B1 can’t move the volume of air of a larger design like PSB’s own T45/T55 or fully articulate the lowest octave, but it does a surprisingly respectable and musical job. psbspeakers.com (TAS 170)

Paradigm Mini Monitor V.6

$478
The newest version of Paradigm’s second-least-expensive speaker provides more than a taste of what music sounds like played through speakers made by people who care about the sound of live music. The Minis offer a surprising level of sonic quality for a ridiculously low price. They aren’t elegant looking, but if you close your eyes you won’t care. If you want to play audiophile Santa Claus, buy a couple of pairs and give them to some deserving young music lovers. paradigm.com (TAS 190)

Focal 705V/706V

$495/$650
Although a bookshelf speaker, the $650 Focal 706V delivers an oversized presentation, with the bass power and extension of many small floorstanding units. Very dynamic and visceral, it has a forward perspective that puts vocals right upfront. Shines on rock, blues, and orchestral music. Highish sensitivity makes it an easy load for an amplifier—50Wpc is plenty in a moderately sized room. If you can get by with a little less bass extension and output, consider the 705V for $150 less. The similarly priced B&W 685 has more refinement in the mids and better soundstaging, but less bottom-end “oomph.” audioplusservices.com (TAS 183, 173)

B&W 685

$650
If you’re looking for an affordable small speaker that offers excellent overall tonal balance, remarkable rhythmic authority, a large and open soundstage, bass response that defies size, and an extended treble response, WG’s experience suggests that the B&W 685 may be your ticket to ride. This British-designed, Chinese-made two-way plays loudly without strain and, thanks to a forward-firing port, can be mounted on a wall, shelf, or stand with good results. A slight lingering edginess in the uppermost treble makes it both exciting to listen to as well as slightly sharp with female voices. A 2007 Product of the Year Award winner. bwspeakers.com (TAS 176)

PSB Imagine B

$1000
Think Imagine T, subtract a midbass driver and the floor-length enclosure, and, voîlà, the Imagine B. There’s the same expressive voice in the midrange and treble and, with only minor exceptions, the same superb balance. No, it can’t quite chew on bass lines and kick drums and church organ riffs as if they were rice cakes like the T does, but the B is still capable of surprising midbass potency. And though it’s more reserved dynamically in the upper bass, it’s also a bit lighter and fleeter of foot in the upper mids and lower treble. psbspeakers.com (TAS 189)

Vienna Acoustics Haydn Grand

$1495
Vienna Acoustics’ sumptuously built two-way not only boasts exquisite fit and finish, its real gift is a naturalistic tonality and balance akin to that of much larger speakers—a rarity in a speaker the size of a humidor. Much of the credit is owed to the low-mass, high-damping/rigidity X3P cone material used in the transparent 6” mid/bass driver and to a cleverly realized bass-reflex enclosure that positions the port directly behind the tweeter—a configuration that keeps enclosure size to a minimum and aids phase coherency. The result is a speaker with uncanny dynamic poise, tightly defined midbass, natural transient response, and a midrange authority that far exceeds its modest physical size. Only a bit of spotlighting in the treble suggests a less than neutral tonal balance, but it’s a minor glitch in an otherwise glowing effort. Thanks to its overall transparency this Viennese mini is as sweet as a Sacher torte. sumikoaudio.net (TAS 176)

Paradigm Signature Reference S1 Loudspeaker

$1498
This stand-mounted, sealed-box, two-way speaker doesn’t understand how small it is, delivering big, robust, dynamic sound. An exceptionally neutral tonal balance coupled with pinpoint imaging make the S1 one of the best sub-$1500 mini-monitors currently available. Paradigm designs and builds all its drivers in-house, including the pure beryllium dome tweeter. Because the S1s are so small, some prospective buyers might pass on them in favor of a larger bookshelf or floor-standing model. That would be a mistake. For its size and price the S1 delivers more pure performance than any speaker SS has heard. paradigm.com (TAS 184)

Nola Boxer

$1500
The Boxer is an unassuming two-way compact in a bass-reflex enclosure. Its physical profile may be working class but sonically it plays pure uptown with a character that’s unerringly musical—a canny balance of warmth and detail. The Boxer also exhibits the moves you’d expect of a smart two-way—vivid images and quick transient reflexes. It’s 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. The result is an unpretentious over-achiever that speaks nothing less than the musical truth. nolaspeakers.com (TAS 203)

Harbeth HL-P3ES2

$1995–$2495
This latest version of Alan Shaw’s subcompact monitor is so cannily designed it almost transcends the limitations of its genre. Except for a little extra juice in the 1–2kHz range, which gives it a slight midrangey character, neutrality and natural tonal balance reign supreme. From the top of the upper bass through the highest octave, fewer than ten percent of speakers on the market are as flat and as accurate as this little Harbeth. It also plays louder and descends to bass depths that leave the original LS3/5a and its other British derivatives at the post. Nonetheless, it remains a mini?monitor, so pipe?organ enthusiasts and headbangers need not apply. As its impedance is low and its load complex (nominally 6 ohms), think a quality 50Wpc, and don’t be afraid to use 100. Thanks to its extraordinary driver integration, coherence, and openness, PS bought the review pair. fidelisav.com (TAS 193)

PMC DB1i

$1999
The DB1i, aka the “dinky box,” is the smallest entry in PMC’s eight model i Series. Equipped with an equally tiny transmission-line enclosure, this two-way offers a tempting combination of big-speaker dynamics and slam along with more traditional small-speaker attributes like imaging and dimensionality. PMC has taken a very shrewd approach in the way it makes its compromises. The roll-offs are gentle, the subtractions almost incidental. The DB1i is one of the more balanced small speakers offering a very approachable and personable sound with a bloom and pluminess that harken back to the traditional small British monitor of thirty years ago. pmc-speakers.com (TAS 198)

Esoteric MG-10

$2800 (add $1800 for dedicated STAND MG10)
The all-magnesium driver, stand-mounted MG10 is a most remarkable loudspeaker. It’s very pure but in no way sterile. It’s fast in a way that equals high-resolution and transparency to the source, while also offering insights into the musical performance. Sporting a 6.5” low-frequency mid/woof and a .5” dome tweeter, these super-low-mass drivers manage not to possess the unnatural-sounding metallic overtones that have left many of us wary of other metal-driver designs. Placed on its dedicated stand, the MG10 ranks among the most neutral, musically satisfying, and exciting speakers we’ve heard. teac.com (TAS 203)

Proac Response D Two

$3500
A dynamic return-to-form for one of high-end’s most highly regarded speaker-makers. The Response D Two is a compact two-way that channels the beloved memory of the legendary Response 2, yet ups the ante with improved extension at both frequency extremes and even higher output. Like the pint-size Tablette that set the industry on its ear thirty years ago, it combines stunning imaging and soundstaging to become the most responsive of Responses yet. Though not as warm or romantic as the original Response 2, the D2 uses its more rigid cabinet to bring speed and transparency and sheer SPLs to bear in ways unimaginable to its forbears. And when it comes to a disappearing act, you can’t beat this Proac. Only a hint of the port and some upper-treble brightness colors what is otherwise an altogether richly satisfying listening experience. Construction is exemplary and a wide variety of veneers is available. proac-loudspeakers.com (TAS 186)

Volent Paragon VL-2

$4999
The Paragon VL-2 from Hong Kong loudspeaker manufacturer Volent is a tour de force in stand-mount loudspeakers. Mating a 7” graphite and titanium woofer to a unique dual side-by-side ribbon of Volent’s own design, the VL-2 sounds very much like a big planar loudspeaker in its top-to-bottom seamlessness. In fact, the ribbon (which is a true ribbon, not a planar-magnetic driver) reproduces the entire spectrum above 1.8kHz. The Volent VL-2 combines the soundstage size of a large planar loudspeaker, the imaging precision of a mini-monitor, and the bass extension, weight, and dynamics of a floorstanding loudspeaker. One must hear the VL-2’s bottom-end authority to believe that such a presentation is possible from a stand-mounted two-way. This terrific bottom end is coupled to a highly resolved midrange and treble that brings out every recorded detail. Somewhat forward upper-midrange and treble provides an upfront palpability that favors resolution over lush romanticism. lauferteknik.com (TAS 201)

Pioneer S-2EX

$6000
The Pioneer S2-EX is a powerful, ported, three-way stand-mount that plucks technology directly from the playbook at Pioneer’s pro-audio “skunk works,” the TAD division (Technical Audio Device). Its character bridges the divide between two distinct listening cultures—the audiophile contingent and the pro-monitor world. Its coincident midrange/beryllium tweeter is not only one of the industry’s most sophisticated transducers; it is also stunningly fast and tonally accurate—boasting an upper bass and a lower midrange that never seem to run short of dynamic reserve. The Pioneer can play prodigiously loud at levels that would handcuff any number of high-end sophisticates. Finally, the S-2EX communicates a precision sound geared to the resolution of details at all levels, micro and macro. Image focus and coherence are immaculate, with uniform off-axis response that offers a wider than normal sweetspot fully comparable to the best two-way mini-monitors, but with the cojones of a bone-crushing three-way. Somewhat dry in the upper treble, it’s not a flowery romantic. Nevertheless, the S2-EX brand of musical truth is seductive. You may never feel the same way about a stand-mounted speaker again. pioneerelectronics.com (TAS 169)

Joseph Audio Pulsar

$7000/ pair
When I asked Jeff Joseph why he created the Pulsar speaker he replied, “I’ve always wanted to make a really excellent mini-monitor speaker. The midrange/woofer I developed for the Pearl II was the missing link. Finally, I had all the parts.“ So, in essence, the Pulsar is a mini-Pearl that fits into small spaces where the Pearl can’t. It also costs only one-third the price. What’s special and perhaps even unique about the Pulsars is their ability to combine all the best sonic characteristics of a superb mini-monitor with those of a larger speaker. With a level of midrange purity that equals ribbon and electrostatic designs and the dynamic weight of a bigger dynamic speaker, the Pulsar is the closest thing to the impossible dream of a small speaker which can generate the SPLs and excitement of a much larger transducer without sacrifices in inner detail or harmonic purity. (TAS 149)

MBL 121

$15,000
The 121 Radialstrahler-Compact from MBL of Germany is an omnidirectional three-way stand-mount—essentially a monitor version of the lavish floorstanding 101 E and 111 F Radialstrahlers. The 121 is outfitted with hand-built, carbon-fiber, radial midrange and tweeter drivers that are vertically affixed atop a vented cabinet housing a pair of side-firing aluminum mid/bass drivers in a push-push configuration. Stunningly dynamic, enveloping, immersive, and passionately romantic with symphonic works, the 121 is rich in timbre—especially luxuriant in the upper bass and lower midrange, areas that typically flag with many compact designs. The speaker can be pushed to all kinds of volumes without distortion or loss of composure. The treble region reveals in detail what every component is contributing to the sound. In soundstaging and imaging, the omnidirectional properties of the 121 express themselves in ways that no monopole can match and that will prove an acquired taste for some. Studio-recorded vocals can lack immediacy, and focus can waver. Setup requires attentiveness—to balance the direct sound with the reflected sound. And, man, does the 121 ever need power and the finest ancillary components to truly bloom. Nonetheless, this is one of the elite speakers of the world. mbl-usa.com (TAS 176)

Magico Mini II

$32,000 (with stands)
Almost from go, the original Magico Mini was controversial, as any two-way priced well over twenty thousand dollars would be. There were folks then—and are now—who simply don’t understand why any sane person would pay this kind of dough for a speaker that only makes it down to about 45Hz in the bass. For Mini money, you could buy any number of dynamic loudspeakers with substantial bass well below 45Hz. The problem for JV was that, until the advent of the Magico M5, he hadn’t heard one of them that sounded as much like real music as the Mini did above 45Hz. From the midbass to the top treble, the Mini simply set new standards for a two-way, direct-radiating cone loudspeaker in low coloration and high fidelity, sounding more “of a piece” and disappearing more completely into its (vast) soundfield than any other dynamic speaker he’d auditioned. Which is why, when Magico announced a “major” upgrade to the Mini, JV didn’t leap at the chance to have his pair turned into Mini IIs. How could something that came as close to the absolute sound be “improved”? Well, the short answer is that it has been—and not by a little bit. The replacement of the original’s titanium mid/woof with Magico’s in-house-designed Nano-Tec driver and the addition of Magico’s elliptical crossover has worked unexpected wonders not just in the bass and mids, but also in the treble, which sounds much smoother since it is no longer being roughed up by the breakup modes of the original titanium mid/woof. The best mini money can buy is now even better—at a price, of course. TAS’s 2006 Overall Product of the Year. magico.net (TAS 179)

TAD CR-1

$37,000
TAD stands for Technical Audio Devices but there’s nothing dry or technical about the musicality pouring forth from the CR-1. This 100-pound, three-way stand-mount is easily one of the most complete speakers available today. It competes at the highest levels combining the warmth, weight, majesty, and output of a floorstander with the soundstaging and image focus of a precision monitor. There’s an eloquent calm to this speaker. Though it’s fully capable of pinning you to your seat with the thrust of a Jet Li leg-kick, its range of tonal expression and harmonic complexity is immense. However, it’s the way it traces the contours of complex groups of instruments so completely that places it in a class of its own. Much of the credit accrues to its transcendent Coherent Source Transducer, a concentric driver sporting pure beryllium midrange and tweeter diaphragms that give new meaning to focus and clarity. Fit and finish are stunning, the bunker-like rigidity and isolation of the  curvaceously sensual enclosure rival anything available in the industry today. In a marketplace where products appear stamped with expiration dates the TAD Compact Reference is destined to stand the test to time.
tad-labs.com. (TAS 205)

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