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CES 2015: Speakers $20,000 and Under

CES 2015: Speakers $20,000 and Under

It’s just not fair. Designers of expensive speakers get to use diamond-studded drivers enshrouded in mu-metal, solid-aluminum, or molded-marble enclosures. But if you’re building a speaker that will retail at $20k or less, those headstarts are out of reach. Instead, you’re pretty much forced to employ traditional—though still high-quality—drivers encased in good old MDF. Heck, the commonality between speakers in my category even extends to their looks. Increasingly, they’re also sharing features that are new to the scene.

For instance, this was the first CES where a goodly number of affordable speakers offered both wired and wireless connectivity. (How does a wireless connection sound? No one was brave enough to offer an A/B demo.) The show also had a higher number of active speakers, especially those with a dedicated amp for each driver. Although active speakers limit mix-and-match component-versatility, they can theoretically result in an ideal amp-speaker match, while saving the buyer money in the bargain. The last trend in affordable speakers that I noted at CES really surprised me: the rampant use of ribbon tweeters. Ribbons used to qualify as exotics, but now they are everywhere, at every price point. This is good news, if you ask me, since ribbons tend to be less aggressive and more extended than all but the best cone tweeters.

With so many elements in common, how did manufacturers differentiate their products from the look-alikes across the hall? In a variety of fascinating ways. CES was the perfect venue for exploring how designers had tweaked the basic formula in order to overcome its constraints. A lot of them succeeded in creating something special.  

Most Significant

Nola Studio Grand Reference Gold. Last year Nola introduced the Metro Reference Gold ($33,000), which, despite its small footprint, had thunderous bass. Now comes a smaller version for smaller rooms at the commensurately smaller price of $19,800. There is but one woofer instead of two, and the Studio is a 3-way rather than a 3.5-way design. These changes reduce low-end extension from 25Hz to a still-adequate 32Hz (although the new model wasn’t going that low in the huge Nola room). In an off-hours audition, the Studio exhibited Nola’s typical speed, openness, spookily realistic imaging, and convincing tonality. Designer Carl Marchisotto achieved this by using the very same drivers and enclosure design as the rest of the Reference Gold series—the company’s best stuff—and leveraging economies of scale. We are the beneficiaries.

Vienna Acoustics Beethoven Concert Grand Symphony Edition. Vienna Acoustics found all kinds of creative ways to maximize the performance of its $8500 newcomer. For example, the midrange is run over a very broad spectrum—the three 7″ woofers kick in only below 80Hz and the tweeters take over above 12.5kHz—to maximize coherence. The crossover board is laid out as a long rectangle, rather than the usual square, to minimize sympathetic vibration between its components, and its inductors are wound to a rigorous 0.7% tolerance (the industry norm is 5–10%). In a twist I’ve never before encountered, the woofers are staged. Normally only one woofer is active, but as frequencies drop the crossover activates additional drivers. Another nice touch: While the enclosure is constructed of the usual 1″-thick MDF, front and rear baffles get 2″-thick boards for improved stiffness. All this effort appears to have paid off. At CES, the new VA sounded dynamic, airy, and fleet on its feet, with the best bass wallop in my category. Now if VA could only shorten the name….

Scansonic MB Series. Scansonic hates being called the “poor man’s Raidho,” but I view that description as being both accurate and highly complimentary. The two companies share the same designer, Michael BØrresen, but not the same gag-reflex-inducing price tags. Case in point, this new series ranges from a mere $2500 for the entry-level bookshelf MB1 to $5000 for the top MB3.5 floorstander. For that you may not get ceramic or diamond drivers, but you do get a carbon-fiber midrange, side-mounted aluminum-coned woofers, and a ribbon tweeter. In my audition, the MB 3.5 captured more than a little Raidho magic, with astonishing imaging, excellent tonal balance, and high resolution.

Technics SB-C700. This new Technics is significant not so because of the speaker itself but because, after being out of the market for thirteen years, the company is staging a comeback and returning to its long-abandoned forays into higher-end audio. There is a new $27,000 speaker, no doubt meant to do battle with Sony’s successful SS-AR1, but in my category stands the $1600 SB-C700. I found its fit-and-finish to be superior, and the coaxial high/mid driver was an unexpectedly sophisticated touch. In a demo, the SB-C700 did the point-source disappearing act, and sounded much larger, fuller, and more expensive than it is.  

Dynaudio Focus XD Line. This new series, which ranges from the $7000 200 XD to the $13,500 600 XD, is typical of the recent trend toward modular, youth-friendly speakers. The top model is actively powered with a 150Wpc amplifier on each of its four drivers. Inputs are both analog and high-res (up to 192/24) digital. In back there is an EQ control to optimize the sound based on placement. There’s even a wireless option (approx. $500), though its resolution is limited to 96/24, and Bluetooth connectivity. At the show, driven by a tiny Aurender server, the 600 XD sounded simply great. The Dynaudio Focus XD line could be an ideal “gateway drug” for new audiophiles.

Auspicious Debuts

REL 212SE ($4000). The 212SE’s vertical form factor allows it to accommodate a pair of stacked 12″ super-alloy woofers in front, not to mention a passive woofer in back and another on the bottom. The better to pressurize the room uniformly. The active drivers are powered by a 1000-watt amp that’s built in-house. The sub can be used wirelessly, too. I was treated to a before-and-after demo, during which the 212SE proved remarkably quick, enabling it to add depth (both in frequency and space) without polluting the midrange. An impressive debut.

Amphion Two 18 ($6000). This new Amphion’s twist is that it is designed to be mounted high off the floor and fairly close to the listener—the better to take the room out of the equation. Eschewing ports, the Two 18 is a two-way, sealed box with the usual 1″ titanium-domed tweeter and dual 6.5″ mid/woofs but complemented by passive radiators in back. The drivers are custom-made for Amphion by Norway’s SEAS. The speaker sounded smooth and edgeless, with a purity that somehow only seems to grace well-designed two-ways.

GoldenEar Triton Five ($1998). The latest from Sandy Gross’ factory of low-priced marvels, the Triton Five is unusually efficient. Give it just thirty watts and it’s perfectly happy. At CES, the Five boasted GE’s standard attributes of smoothness, tonal purity, and Quad-like coherence. As expected, bass was limited in extension, but it was tight and full of timbral detail. Listening to the Five inevitably means getting pulled into the music.

Thiel TT1 ($5800). I confess to being disappointed that the newly reconstituted Thiel has abandoned all that made the brand unique. The company has jettisoned time-aligned drivers, low-order crossovers, and Jim Thiel’s brilliant in-house drivers. Instead, the TT1 is a 3-way floorstander with fairly standard componentry and design. Nonetheless—and I wasn’t expecting this—the TT1 gave one of the most well-rounded performances in my category, with super-solid bass and an uncannily realistic piano presentation. Driven by Classé electronics, the TT1 had excellent dynamic attack. I did hear some midbass suckout, but that was likely the room.

Sony SSNA-5ES ($6000). The difference between a $600 and a $6000 speaker came into sharp focus when I visited the Sony room. For the first time, the company was actually playing (rather than merely displaying) the new SSNA-5ES. The speaker had something the lower-priced models did not: refinement. The new speaker is liquid smooth, and bass goes deep without drama. It also delivers a more precise sense of timing, leading to greater involvement. Sony has no magic tricks when it comes to churning out excellent speakers; it just sweats the details.

Wilson Sabrina ($15,900). On static display at the Mirage, Wilson’s new Sabrina three-way is intended to recapture the audience of the Watt/Puppy. Although very different in form factor from that classic speaker, the Sabrina nonetheless matches it in terms of size, and arguably constitutes an even better value. The Sabrina contains the same drivers and technology as are found in the Alexia, but in the most compact package possible.

Usher T-515 ($750) and X-Tower L ($12,900). The astonishingly inexpensive T-515 is a two-way demi-tower with funky stands, available in a half-dozen lollipop colors. With a 1″ tweeter and dual 5″ mid/bass units, the T-515 had remarkable speed and openness. Bass was very respectable, too. The main drawback I heard was hollow mids, but at this price there’s bound to be at least one shortcoming. Nonetheless, a fun and impressive speaker. Meanwhile, the more costly X-Tower L has the sole diamond tweeter I saw in this class.      

In Other News

Angel Sound is now building its own drivers and the first result is an unnamed, yet-to-be-priced (they’re really new, folks) model expected to come in between $7–$10k. Sporting rare—in this price range—beryllium-domed tweeters and mids, the new speaker had a warm, mellow sound. Monitor Audio’s upgraded range has models ranging from $1800 to $5500. All feature tapered, multi-layered cabinets and the company’s light, rigid, proprietary Ceramic-Coated Aluminum Magnesium drivers for maximum coherence. Wharfedale also debuted a new series, the Diamond Series, ranging from $199 to $1699. (No, the drivers are not diamond.)  

ATC has upgraded the SCM 40, a passive unit, to the SCM 40A ($12,500). The latter is tri-amped, and both drivers and amps are built in-house. In an unusual move, the tweeter eschews ferro-fluid cooling, which the company says can get “gummy” after a few years. Epos launched the K-3 ($2395), big brother to the K-1 that NG reviewed favorably. The new model is a floorstander that can be made active for an extra $2k per speaker.

Enigmacoustic’s new $15k Dharma speaker is unique in having what look likes an electrostatic “hat.” Driven by modestly-priced NuPrime electronics, the speakers had spacious highs. As for the bass, I was looking around for the non-existent subwoofer. Unison Research has a new Max ($6495), whose distinguishing characteristic is 94dB sensitivity. It’s designed for very low power amps, such as the 24Wpc Unison triode driving them at CES.

Dynaudio also jumped on the active bandwagon with its Excite X14A. At $2000, it’s just $500 more than the passive version. The speaker delivered a shocking amount of bass for its tiny size. Another great new little speaker was the Morel Octave 6 Ltd bookshelf ($2500). Not as much bass as the Dynaudio, but lively, fast, and sporting a gorgeous piano-black finish. Magneplanar announced, but did not display, its new 1.7i, a replacement for the justly-lauded 1.7. Maggie is remaining mum on the new version’s enhancements and price, but the previous model cost $2000, so that’s a benchmark.

Tannoy introduced the Revolution XT Series, with models priced from $1100 to $2600 the pair. All have a downward-firing port and employ a dual-concentric mid/hi driver with an improved waveguide. The mids and highs were unusually smooth, and the imaging had the unforced quality of concentric drivers. Finally, Dali gave the Ambicon line its U.S. debut. The technology is a trickle down from the twice-as-costly Epicon line, the main difference being the size and number of woofers. The Ambicons aren’t active, but they do have a ribbon tweeter.

Best Sound (cost no object): Although its analog sound was rather odd, the CH Precision/Zellaton room’s digital sound wins for being the antithesis of “hi-fi”. Blessedly unhyped yet stunningly musical. Kudos, too, to TAD for the best room/system mating.

Best Sound (for the money):  Unquestionably the Maggie .7 ($1400/pair) with optional bass panel ($800) driven by C-J electronics. The sound was rich, transparent, and natural.

Most Significant Product Introduction: The BACCH-SP 3-D sound processor as described in RH’s show report. This is no hat trick; it’s true 3-D audio that can literally put a whisper in your ear.   

Most Significant Trend: Streaming audio, which sounds better than USB and is more convenient thanks to intuitive tablet-based control apps.

Most Coveted Product: Sign me up for some Siltech Triple Crown monocrystal cables. $30k (gaak!) per pair, and they look it!

By Alan Taffel

I can thank my parents for introducing me to both good music and good sound at an early age. Their extensive classical music collection, played through an enviable system, continually filled our house. When I was two, my parents gave me one of those all-in-one changers, which I played to death.

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