2019 High-End Audio Buyer’s Guide: Stand-Mounted Loudspeakers Under $10,000
Elac Debut B5
It’s little; it’s vinyl clad; it’s dirt cheap; and it sounds terrific. The B5 compact represents the first effort in what should be a long and fruitful collaboration between Elac and its celebrated VP of Engineering, Andrew Jones. The B5 is robust in the mid and upper bass, but the real difference is how everything comes together in such an exquisitely balanced and musical fashion. NG instinctively connected with the basic honesty of the B5 sound and was gobsmacked by its bargain-basement price. What Jones and the Elac team have managed to ring from this most humble of designs is nothing short of exceptional.
Wharfedale Diamond 225
The Wharfedale Diamond 225s are very affordable, relatively compact bookshelf speakers. They include a 1″ soft dome tweeter on top of a 6 ½” woven Kevlar woofer with a slot-loaded bass port at the bottom and the option to bi-amp or bi-wire. Despite their modest size and price the 225s offered up some serious sound: tight bass, crisp highs, toe-tapping rhythm and pace. They’re not going to rattle any windows, but they’ll deliver plenty of satisfaction to keep you flipping records. The soundstage is direct and wide, projecting up to the edge of the baffle and beyond, and the 225s render even shrill horns butter-smooth. Overall, the Diamond 225s have a surprising and pleasing cleanliness to their sound, and at a price that invites newcomers and old-hands alike. They’re an impressive reminder that the “entry-level” isn’t such a bad place to be.
Elac Uni-Fi UB5
How do you follow an act like the Elac Debut B5? If you’re designer Andrew Jones, there’s only one route: engineering one of his trademark concentric drivers for a sub-$500 three-way compact. Sonically, if you loved the Debut B5, you’re going to really love the UB5; it’s the B5 gone to finishing school. There’s greater specificity, body, and focus to images—all trademarks of a concentric driver. Add to that a sibilance range that is natural, sharp, and quick, like the live event. Plus there is rock-solid 50Hz midbass output, similar to the B5 but much more controlled and less reliant on the port. While there’s still a bit of veiling and the UB5 doesn’t fully shed its enclosure, let’s get real—this Elac is competitive with speakers well beyond its price segment. It might just be the best five hundred bucks you’ll ever spend.
Revel Concerta2 M16
A feast for the eyes and ears, the M16 has been refreshed with smartly contoured enclosures, high-gloss finishes, and elegant design accents. Sonically, Revel doesn’t make wallflowers, and the M16 follows suit dramatically. Its dynamic, uncompromising midband, good overall speed, and excellent inter-driver coherence all happily conspire to generate a tonal ripeness that belies the speaker’s tiny stature. Easily the most enthralling aspects of the M16’s performance are the fullness and cohesiveness of its soundstage and imaging. The M16 doesn’t paint small sonic landscapes—a sense of immersion and “widescreen” scale are two of its most distinctive characteristics. A compact budget loudspeaker that maintains classic Revel virtues.
Audience The One and 1+1 V2+
The One, as you might infer from its name, is a single full-range driver shoehorned into a small box. The driver itself is the same unit, the A3A, that Audience uses in its $2345 1+1 V2+—and in its $72,000 flagship 16+16 speaker. Audience is unique in this regard; no other speaker manufacturer employs the same driver in all its speakers from the smallest to the largest. According to Audience, the A3A has exceptionally flat response, claimed to be within +/-3dB from 40Hz to 22kHz. The 1+1 V2+ employs a significantly redesigned version of this full-range driver (one each front and back, plus passive radiators on either side), top-level Au24SX internal wiring, re-tuned passive radiators, and custom tellurium solderless binding posts. The result is more resolution and detail (particularly in the treble), superior transparency, wider dynamic expression, and greater midrange purity. The 1+1 V2+’s midrange clarity, just one of the virtues of a crossover-less single-driver speaker, is on par with that of many speakers costing twenty times the V2+’s price. Properly set up, the One and the 1+1 V2+ are the best desktop speakers reviewer Steven Stone has heard.
GoldenEar Technology Aon 3
GoldenEar’s Aon 3 is an attempt to capture the beautifully focused, revealing, and coherent sound of today’s best two-way stand-mount monitors at a down-to-earth price. An “augmented” two-way, it combines a 7″ wide-bandwidth mid/bass driver with a Heil-type tweeter, and two side-mounted passive radiators to extend bass depth and punch. The result is a monitor that provides agile, detailed, and nuanced mids and highs, while serving up a low end that is unexpectedly full-bodied and that matches the quality of the speaker’s midrange and treble. Care in placement and setup is needed for best results. Those listeners willing to sacrifice some of the Aon 3’s extended low-frequency performance may find GoldenEar’s slightly smaller Aon 2 offers even more compelling three-dimensional imaging.
MartinLogan Motion 35XT
This two-way, compact hybrid design puts its Folded Motion tweeter, melded with a perky aluminum-cone mid/bass, squarely in the spotlight. ML’s air-motion-style tweet produces an expansively airy treble. Its midrange sonics are smooth, a bit forward, and yet relatively unboxy. Driver integration, the bane of hybrids, is good. Careful wall placement enhances bass performance considerably. Visually, the 35XT offers a nicely updated form factor and excellent fit and finish.
Dynaudio Xeo 2
The Xeo 2 is a wireless, internally bi-amplified/DSP’d two-way speaker system in a svelte cabinet. Less than a foot tall, it has a bold, confident voice that neither screams with treble lift nor shrinks into the background with presence suckout. In character, it is dark, warm, and musical, making for soothing long-term listening. Its midrange-centric sound does justice to both male and female vocalists, conveying high intelligibility, tactile presence, and a distinct sense of the physical underpinnings of the performance. Connectivity is as easy as pairing with your iPhone BT; the Xeo’s room-adaptive EQ settings are also helpful. In sum, a combination of packaging, performance, and convenience that deserves a receptive audience.
Focal Aria 906
From Focal’s Aria line, the compact two-way 906 has a lot to sing about. It uses Focal’s innovative F-cone sandwich-construction with a flax-fiber core driver for lightness, rigidity, and superior damping. Its sonic character is vivid, fast, vibrant, and thoroughly engaging. Bass response is excellent for this class-—defined, controlled, and reliably extended into the fifty-cycle range. The lifelike body of its midrange gives the 15″-tall 906 a nicely weighted tonal balance, with good dynamics and a notable amount of air and dimensionality. Befitting its size, its sound is slightly lighter overall, but thanks to its impressive and frisky midbass the speaker always feels grounded. Quibbles are minor—the upper-mid/lower-treble range lacks some intensity, resulting in a softening of orchestral presence and brilliance. But the Aria 906 gets most of the music just right, and at 1500 bucks does so for a song.
KEF LS50/KEF LS50 Wireless
Built to celebrate KEF’s 50th anniversary, the LS50 monitor spins pure coincident-driver magic thanks to its blushing pink-gold Uni-Q coaxial midrange/tweeter mounted in bulls-eye fashion atop a uniquely arched baffle. Visually arresting and sonically satisfying, the LS50 delivers tonal neutrality at just the right pitch, with superb midrange sonics, full-bodied presence, and potent midbass punch. Thanks to its beautifully crafted high-density enclosure—an ideal platform for the space-saving Uni-Q—there’s little in the way of cabinet resonances or port colorations. Imaging is as clean and pinpoint-precise as you’d expect from KEF. Positioned in a small- or medium-sized room, the LS50 makes a statement like few other small speakers. And if you want even more convenience, consider the powered LS50 Wireless, which includes built-in amplification, DAC, streaming preamp, and room EQ along with the same Uni-Q driver and low-resonance enclosure..
Totem Acoustic Sky
Classic Totem through and through, the Sky is purpose-built—clean and seamless, with rigid cabinetry and beautiful veneer finishes. The Sky is also prima facie evidence of just how far small speakers have evolved in the way of a fuller-bodied and warmer musical balance. Its tweeter and woofer sing with an of-a-piece coherence. Given the right-sized room (medium-to-smallish) and strong amplifier support, the Totem Sky just clears its throat and lets loose, eliciting tuneful bass with resonant energy, dynamic vigor, and surprising slam. With break-in, the Sky grows significantly more textured and realistic: The ambience surrounding singers, for example, becomes airier and better defined. Hats off to Totem’s Vince Bruzzese for his continuing quest to coax big-time performance from a tiny two-way, while still harnessing the virtues of speed and transparency that come with a little box..
Watkins Generation 4
The late Bill Watkins poured decades of design experience into this small and innovative two-way. One of its key design elements is operation of the woofer as a wide-range driver without a low-pass filter. The 1″ aluminum/magnesium alloy dome is damped to tame ultrasonic breakup modes. An unusual patent-pending bass-reflex tuning is implemented with two damped internal chambers. The end result is in-room extension to nearly 41Hz, a remarkable accomplishment for a 6.5″ driver in a compact enclosure. The spatial presentation is nothing short of amazing and virtually leaves the BBC-spec LS3/5A in the dust. Expect an exceptionally wide and transparent soundstage coupled with transient speed, precise image focus, timbral accuracy, and an ability to retrieve low-level detail that are generally unheard of at this price point. Perceived distortion levels are low, and harmonic textures flow naturally without any glaring response peaks.
Revel Performa3 M106
Revel’s M106 is cut from the same rich fabric as its big brother the F206, but designed for smaller spaces. A vocal lover’s dream, the two-way M sports the same, brilliantly refined dome tweeter with acoustic lens waveguide as the floorstander, creating a wide sweetspot, a rewarding lack of localization, and estimable composure under all sorts of dynamic fire. Plus, it delivers nearly imperturbable output so that even under punishing conditions the feisty M106 remains linear. There’s a cooler cast to its tonal balance likely due to the lighter bass, but its character is still unmistakably, accurately Revel. History will show this is one of the great compacts of the last ten years.
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, immediacy, and spaciousness that 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. When the Bonsai was paired with either of two different Air Tight tube amplifiers (the ATM-300 and ATM-1S), the warmth and intimacy of vocals were delivered with detailed delicacy. As with most one-ways, the Bonsai’s aren’t the last word in bass extension (you could always bolster the low end with a sub), but, boy, do they play beautifully throughout the midrange and well into the treble with a frequency response of up to 20kHz (per the specs). Oh, and decked-out in their elegant, glossy rosewood finish, these compact wonders are as lovely to look at as they are to listen to.
Axis VoiceBox S
Sonically, this li’l two-way with a sweet ribbon tweeter is a robust and agile performer. Possessed of a generally lighter character, it has a welcome zone of midrange warmth that keeps it on balance. Imaging and dimensionality are excellent. The drivers cohere with no apparent presence dip at or around the crossover point. Primary is an open and detailed midband, with a slightly forward tilt and an abundance of body. The VoiceBox S prefers a smaller room and some wall reinforcement, but this is one little Aussie that could very well rattle expectations for foot-tall two-ways in its price range.
Bowers & Wilkins 705 S2
Balanced, uncolored, remarkably precise, and self-effacing, the 705 S2 two-way monitor/bookshelf loudspeaker is a shining example of a large company providing more (not less) value. Leveraging technologies and techniques developed for Bowers & Wilkins’ 800 Series speakers, the new 700 Series actually delivers on the often-promised, seldom-delivered “trickle-down.” The PVD (Physical Vapor Deposition) carbon-coated tweeter and Continuum cone mid/woofer are keys—long-tested elements that take the 705 S2 well beyond the performance of previous-generation 700s. The 705 S2 plays larger than expected, and possesses that rare ability to allow musical essentials to shine through. The small two-way monitor category has always been a favorite of those who value the qualitative over the quantitative. The 705 S2 is an all-around and constant musical companion that comes as close to a “must-audition” in sub-$5k monitors as you’ll find today.
Totem Acoustic Signature One
In celebration of Totem’s 30th anniversary, the Signature One represents the largest series of changes ever to this iconic model. Sonic performance is classic Totem—a high-revving, high-output presentation that doesn’t shy away from combustible dynamic swings or demanding acoustic bass or rock rhythms. Its responsiveness to low-level inputs is where the cabinet rigidity pays off. The Signature One’s ability to vanish within the confines of a small listening room remains a credit to the Totem résumé. Tonally it has a reasonably neutral balance anchored by a tuneful, full-bodied midrange that is rich in color and texture. Not merely a quick, peel-out-and-burn-rubber compact, it has fairly broad shoulders that impart authentic gravitas to recorded music. Continuing to widen the performance envelope of the small speaker, the Signature One is the widest expression of Totem’s grand quest thus far.
Joseph Audio Prism
Six years ago, after Steven Stone reviewed the Joseph Audio Pulsars, he ran into a number of audiophiles at the 2011 RMAF who were very interested in owning a pair. Their only hesitation was coming up with the $7000. The Prisms should shake a good portion of those fence-sitters from their roosts. While SS can’t and won’t try to give you a numerical percentage of the Pulsar’s performance that is equaled by the Prisms—as in “they deliver 85% of the Pulsars’ performance”—he will say that the Prisms have similar sonic qualities with an overall performance level that ranks up with the best small monitors he’s heard. No, the Prisms aren’t as visually prepossessing as the Pulsars. But in many domestic and professional listening environments their less blingy exterior may be a positive attribute. Put the Prisms in a midsized-or-smaller room, mate them with decent electronics and a good subwoofer, and they will deliver the musical goods in that natural and articulate way that Joseph Audio loudspeakers are known for, but at a more affordable price than ever before.
Not a brand to cater to the fashions of the marketplace, ATC has bolstered these stout, professional-grade monitors with bespoke drivers created to do a single job—accurate pro-caliber reproduction. Still, in spite of ATC’s stellar track record, NG never expected the new and aggressively priced SCM19 to be as good as it is. A superb and superbly defined midrange, overall tonal neutrality, broad-shouldered micro- and macro-dynamics are all in evidence. The surprise is the extent to which the SCM19 outshines its distinguished predecessors—particularly ATC’s other passive consumer speakers—in voicing and seamless inter-driver coherence. There are no discontinuities and/or vestigial box colorations, either. In addition there’s more air on top, likely attributable to the all-new, in-house-engineered-and-manufactured soft-dome tweeter, which is a real beaut. Simply one of the best compacts NG has heard to date.
Revel Performa3 M126 Be
To describe the M126 Be as merely the hot-rodded version of the nifty little two-way M106 does not give it its sonic due. There are fireworks and ass-kicking dynamics, yes, but more importantly, there’s a degree of silken, shimmering refinement that’s rare in this segment. Tricked out with a new 1″ beryllium dome tweeter with a ceramic-coated, cast-aluminum acoustic-lens waveguide, and a 6.5″ ceramic/aluminum-composite mid/bass, the M126 Be offers low-level resolution, timbral realism, and top-end air and speed that are improved across the board. The low-end response from its bass-reflex cabinet is quick, with little indication of port artifacts—the timbral clarity of acoustic bass, for example, is richly defined in both extension and grip. Relatively easy to drive at a sensitivity of 86dB and a load of 8 ohms, the M126 Be still craves good amplification. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this excellent compact is the continuity of its soundstage—an unbroken tapestry of images woven into ambient soundspace.
Stirling Broadcast LS3/6
$5595 (premium finishes, $5995)
This modern version of the classic British mid-sized monitor, which was itself the BBC version of the famous Spendor BC1, offers the extraordinary truth to timbre of its ancestry but without the dynamic limitations. Designed by Derek Hughes, son of Spencer Hughes, designer of the original, this resurrected classic is a modern masterpiece. With enough bass extension to do justice to large-scale music, whether classical or rock, and enough dynamic power to satisfy in any but palatial rooms, it is a speaker for all music. Its balance is slightly warmer in the low mids/upper bass than the leaner speakers of our day, but this enables the user to fight off floor cancellation and get an essentially neutral in-room sound that few speakers equal. (The slight excess of treble energy noted in the review has been corrected in current production: The speaker is extremely smooth now.) The midrange makes one understand why the midrange of the BC1 became a legend. And the legend continues in this instant classic.
Bowers & Wilkins 805 D3
The 805 D3 is the sole compact in Bowers & Wilkins’ revamped 800 D Series lineup. Stunning both visually and sonically, the two-way 805 is a bold performer. Its midrange signature is a near-seamless combination of speed, wideband dynamic contrast, and dense tonal color. And the civilizing influence of the 805’s superb diamond tweeter cannot be overstated. Chameleon-like in how it adopts the character of source material, it can be terrifically expressive and liquid, or warm and richly shaded. Other decisive factors include its integration of port and woofer, and excellent inter-driver coherence. Compact or not, the 805 D3 is a loudspeaker to be reckoned with at any price, from any company.
Joseph Audio Pulsar
When asked why he created the Pulsar speaker, Jeff Joseph replied, “I’ve always wanted to make a really excellent mini-monitor. 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 electrostatics and the weight of a bigger dynamic speaker, the Pulsar is the closest thing to the impossible dream of a small speaker that can generate the SPLs and excitement of a much larger transducer with no loss in delicacy.
JWM Acoustics Alyson AML II
$8250-$8750, depending on wood and finish
This bi-wireable stand-mounted loudspeaker is a two-way design with a 1″ ring radiator and a pair of 6″ paper cone woofers, the drivers sourced from ScanSpeak but modified by Joshua Westin Miles himself—the JWM of JWM Acoustics. All of the company’s products are beautiful to behold. For a decade, Miles built his speakers in Hawaii, using woods sourced from the Pacific Islands. He’s since moved to Austin, Texas, and is starting to employ sustainable materials from this new environment. The visual appeal of the Alyson in no way indicates indifference to sonic performance; the speakers reproduce vocal and instrumental timbres with life-like accuracy and demonstrate plenty of punch and power when asked to play loudly. For both sonic and aesthetic reasons, Alysons are speakers that even restless audiophiles will likely hang on to for a long time.
Focal Sopra No1
Reviewer Andy Quint wrote this about these superb two-ways with articulating cabinets from celebrated French manufacturer Focal: “Perhaps the most telling part of the audiophile loudspeaker review process is what happens when all the critical listening has finished. With the Sopra No1s, I felt compelled to hear them play music until the last possible moment. When the truck picking them up for the trip back to their U.S. distributor showed up earlier than anticipated, I had to tell the driver to return later and then scramble to finish disassembling the Sopras and get their constituent parts back into the cardboard boxes. Sometimes it’s hard to say goodbye.” ’Nuff said.
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