LOUDSPEAKERS

 

LOUDSPEAKERS

There was always a significant divide between the flagship Bowers & Wilkins 800 Series and the speaker echelons below it. The new 700 Series narrows that gap, both technologically and sonically.

 

There’s something special about bookshelf speakers. Most would think of them of larger, heftier floorstanders, not least in terms of bass. But a well-tuned, carefully located and suitably mounted bookshelf can make musical magic.

The new Bowers & Wilkins S2 is a compact, two-way stand-mount design. It’s part of the new 700 Series family, which replaces B&W’s previous CM Series with a range consisting of three floorstanders, three bookshelves, a pair of centre channels, and an active subwoofer.

AT FACE VALUE
The 705 S2 is the biggest of the three bookshelves, and the only featuring a standalone, top-mounted tweeter, mounted in a solid aluminium housing. As a result it bears more than a passing resemblance to the much more expensive B&W 805 Diamond, which is the British marque’s flagship stand-mounter.

The slightly smaller 705 S2 lacks the 805’s curved enclosure panels, and it has a rear-mounted bass-reflex port, while it features a carbon dome tweeter, compared to the diamond dome HF unit of the 805. But both speakers share the same 165 mm Continuum mid/bass unit.

The 705 S2 is handsome, and handsomely executed, thanks to real-wood veneer (unless you opt for the gloss black or satin white finish), well-engineered binding posts, and slim, magnetically located grilles. It demands a decent, damped stand for sturdy mounting at the correct height.

UNDER THE COVERS
Despite its compact size, B&W claims a frequency response of 50 Hz – 28 kHz at ±3 dB, while the 88 dB/SPL efficiency promises a relatively untaxing load. Nominal impedance is 8 ohms, dipping to a 3,7 ohm minimum.

The Continuum midrange is at the core of the praise lavished on the latest 800 Series Diamond speakers, and its role here is equally laudable. Taking over from B&W’s Kevlar-coned mids, the new mid/bass employs a coated, proprietary material that offers low mass, high levels of stiffness, and controlled break-up for an altogether smoother, more progressive response.

The carbon-dome tweeter debuts in the 700 Series, and replaces the previous dual-aluminium design. The breakup point is raised to a lofty 47 kHz, while B&W claims it also ups the ante in terms of imaging and accuracy.

If you want to read all the technical bumph, you can find it on B&W’s website, here.

Iconic view from above showcases tweeter on top

SETTING UP
The 705 S2s arrived brand new and unmolested, and were afforded a solid 100 hours of running-in time before sitting down for any serious listening. They were positioned on sand-filled stands about 800 mm away from the side walls and 1,9 m away from the rear wall, toed in slightly towards the listening position.

Much of the review listening was done with Electrocompaniet’s now defunct PI-2D integrated amp providing the urge, with the all-new Marantz PM8006 (review pending) serving as a brighter, airier counterpoint.

Sources included Lumin’s D1 network player, and another newcomer, the Marantz ND8006 disc player/network streamer. I used KEF’s highly regarded two-way LS50 monitors as a basis for comparison.

SOUNDS LIKE …
B&W makes much of the 700 Series’ studio heritage, and there are elements to the performance of these bookshelves that vindicate that claim. The overriding impression is of an accurate, attentive loudspeaker that pays close attention to both the broad strokes and the fine strands of the music.

There’s a sense of precision that permeates their performance, a penchant for clarity (especially in the upper registers, where much of the finer sonic detail resides) that can tend to lend a somewhat aloof air to the performance.

This is not a speaker that rolls off high frequencies to create a smoother, warmer, friendlier sound: instead, it takes its task of revealing the full extent of the music it’s presented with, very seriously indeed.

New 705 S2 benefits from 800 Series tech

That talent for exposing and exploring even the finest slivers of information cuts both way: it can make poorer recordings sound unbearable, while ensuring that more memorable productions are justly rewarded.

If the tweeters could be accused of being a little too critical at times, then the mid/bass is simply glorious. Drawing from the latest 800 Series Diamond family, the so-called Continuum driver continues its starring role in the 700 Series context. The delivery is smooth and even sensual, with a presence that is rich without becoming oversaturated.

There’s excellent pace and poise, too, allowing the 705s to approach their musical wares with an athletic enthusiasm. Even low bass is delivered with punch and bite, laying the groundwork for a sound that always engages the listener.

Forget about letting these speakers bumble along in the background: even at low volumes, they deliver sheer musicality in spades, compelling closer attention.

Casey Abrams’ compelling Chesky release, ‘Put A Spell On You’, is the perfect foil for these speakers, showcasing just how believably they image. The recording captures the performances with an almost visceral intensity, and the B&Ws make the most of that up-close realism.

They perfectly placed the deeply resonant double bass, the thrilling sax, the pin-point percussion and the acrobatic vocals on an expansive soundstage that seemed not in the least limited by the size of the speakers, nor the physical constraints of the listening room.

New B&W 705 S2 looks even better with grille removed

The transparency of the 705s was critical here, allowing the music complete freedom of movement in all planes, and enveloping the listener with a sound that always seemed more three-dimensional than merely stereo.

Chris Stapleton’s stirring acoustic guitar and raw-edged vocals on “Either Way” (‘From A Room: Vol 1’) were brought to life with a level of intensity that will make even the most jaded hi-fi fan sit up and take notice.

Again, it was the fullness, the presence and the sheer impact of the music that enthralled, especially produced by such compact two-way boxes. The speakers addressed textures and tones with equal impact, and never sounded challenged by the demanding dynamics of the recording.

On ‘I Was Wrong’ off the same set, the 705s showed of their ability to reach down deeply into the bass region, exposing the full impact and energy of the driving electric bass lines to full effect. The sound picture was finely focussed and dimensionally generous, immersing the listener in the music.

The rich fabric and complex textures of Robert Plant’s inventive music on ‘Carry Fire’ can be difficult to unravel, but on “Dance With You Tonight”, the 705s never lost their composure, while easily picking their way through the pounding percussion, wailing guitars and thundering bass. At the same time, they afforded Plant’s vocals loads of air and space.

U2’s ‘Songs Of Experience’ marks the band’s return to form, and the lucidity and depth of the 705s allowed the full impact of the bass lines, gentle guitar and almost circumspect percussion on “Summer Of Love” to shine through. Bono’s vocals sounded both tender and heroic, while the overall presentation was spine-tingling in its intensity.

When I compared the 705 S2s to the KEF LS50s, the KEFs produced a richer, heftier sound, with less prominent trebles and a more benign approach to upper trebles. However, the staging was less expansive especially in terms of height, alntough imaging was pretty much on par in terms of separation and depth.

The meatier KEFs provided more mid/bass punch, and were equally adept at dynamic swings. But the B&Ws were
more precise and more revealing, digging deep into the heart of the music, and the performance.

Tweeter housed in separate, solid aluminium housing

THE BOTTOM LINE
If there is a downside to the 705 S2s, it’s that the trebles can be too uncompromising. That’s less of a criticism than it is a mark of their inherent accuracy, but it can reveal some disconcerting shortcomings in lesser recordings.

And yes, those who like their bass big and bold enough to rattle windows and shake walls will want to look for something bigger.

But given their size, these bookshelf speakers cover a broader than expected tonal range with authority, while delivering a level of lucidity and dimensional generosity that makes for inviting, entertaining and ultimately rewarding listening.

PROS:  Top-class execution matched to finely rendered, engaging performance
CONS: May be considered too uncompromising for some, and some systems

– Deon Schoeman (info@avsa.co.za)

VITAL STATS
Enclosure type: Bass-reflex, rear-ported
Drive units: 165 mm Continuum mid/bass driver, 25 mm carbon dome tweeter
Bi-wiring: Yes
Impedance: 8 ohms nominal
Sensitivity: 88 dB
Frequency response: 50 Hz – 28 kHz (±3 dB)
Power handling: 30 – 120 watts unclipped
Dimensions (HxWxD): 407 x 200  301 mm
Weight: 9,3 kg
PRICE: R41 990
SUPPLIED BY: HFX Systems. 011 907-9092
WEBSITE: www.hfxsystems.co.za

SOFTWARE
U2 – Songs Of Experience (Universal MQA FLAC)
Brandi Carlisle – By The Way, I Forgive You (Atlantic MQA FLAC)
Robert Plant – Carry Fire (Nonesuch 44/16 FLAC)
Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Vol1 (Decca 96/24 FLAC)
Casey Abrams – Put A Spell On You (Chesky 192/124 FLAC)

TESTED WITH
Electrocompaniet PI-2D integrated amp
Marantz PM8006 integrated amp
Lumin D1 network player
Marantz ND8006 network player
KEF LS50 loudspeakers

Professional gear doesn’t often cross over successfully into the domestic hi-fi domain. But the JBL Synthesis monitors have a reputation for managing just that. The result is both realistic and musically thrilling

On paper, professional audio equipment – amplifiers and monitors in particular – should do a sterling job in a less taxing home entertainment environment. However, the priorities and applications of pro gear are significantly different.

For instance, professional speakers don’t have to blend into beautifully decorated home environments: they are workhorses, handsome in a form-follows-function kind of way, but with little in the way of lifestyle appeal.

They’re also meant to deliver an unwaveringly honest and accurate representation of the music across a broad bandwidth, often for hours on end, at above-average levels, while ensuring robust reliability.

AT FACE VALUE

The JBL Synthesis 4429 studio monitors fit that bill perfectly. Their large, slightly retro enclosures feature a compression horn system for tweeter and super tweeter, linked to a beefy woofer.

Both the 50 mm tweeter and 19mm super tweeter employ titanium diaphragms, while the bass driver features a 300 mm pure-pulp cone. The claimed frequency response extends from 40 Hz to 45 kHz (at -6 dB), and sensitivity is an efficient 91 dB.

The horn array occupies the upper part of the enclosure and uses a dense, mechanically inert material dubbed SonoGlass for the bi-radial horn. It’s flared to obviate resonance and boost overall clarity.

A removable cloth grille below the horn system hides a trademark blue-toned baffle and dual front-firing ports below the woofer, as well as adjustable attenuators for the HF and UHF frequencies. The rear panel has dual gold-plated binding posts, allowing bi-wiring.

The substantial enclosure is constructed from 25 mm MDF with real-wood veneer. At 635 mm tall and 400 mm wide, they’re larger than conventional standmount speakers, but not tall enough to be used in a floorstanding role.

As a result, they require custom-height stands – the review pair came with a pair of locally sourced and superbly made metal stands just 255 mm high, which places the super tweeter at around ear height. Total actual height of the JBL plus stand the comes to 890 mm.

Blue baffle is a JBL Synthesis monitor hallmark

SETTING UP

For this review, the JBLs were placed in a free-standing location, well away from side and rear walls, and specifically avoiding corners, as these monitors are tonally generous, with a particular penchant for fast, powerful and full low frequencies.

They were toed in towards the listening position, but not completely, the idea being to find the optimum balance between image focus and generous staging. The review pair had already been run in, so there was no need for any extended break-in period.

Instead, I ran them just enough to get them settled in, hooked up to our Parasound Halo A21 power amp, partnered by a Primare PRE32/MM30 pre-amp. Source signals were provided by a Lumin D1 network streamer and a Marantz KI Pearl Lite CD/SACD deck, both running via a Bryston BDA-3 D/A converter.

SOUNDS LIKE …

From the outset, the US speaker duo delivered a full, big-hearted sound.  And yet, despite their tonal generosity, the 4429s never lost their agility or poise, always maintaining an athletic, succinct pace.

Initially, I felt that the monitors were adopting a slightly over-lavish approach, especially in the lower midrange, adding a certain warmth and richness to the sound, compared to more conventional hi-fi speakers.

However, it didn’t take long to get used to that full-range sound and to revel in the ability of the JBLs to do full justice to the complete tonal scope of the music. It added an underlying realism to the sound that made voices and instruments come vividly alive.

Attenuation controls allow performance to be customised

Equally important from a believability perspective was the fact that the JBLs did not allow the tonal richness to weigh them down. In fact, it was combination of tonal breadth, precise control and unbridled agility that allowed them to paint a sonic picture brimming with energy and enthusiasm.

And if you thought that those big boxes would get in the way of the music, think again: they managed to become almost completely invisible as point sources, with a level of transparency quite unexpected given their less than subtle visual presence.

Listening to Pat Metheny’s ‘Rise’, off the unusually titled Kin <–> set, the shimmering guitars were spread wide across the soundstage, interspersed with percussion and hand-claps, spotlighting the light-footed dexterity of the speakers.

They created an instant sense of dimension and presence, with the instruments occupying a real, identifiable position on the soundstage. The sheer speed of the speakers was showcased by the spectacular percussion, delivered with real punch and bite.

The 4429s expressed the joy and effervescence of the music with an zeal that was as mesmerising as it was infectious. The tenor sax tended towards brightness to the extent that I actually turned down the UHF by a quarter turn, which also  prevented cymbals from sounding too splashy..

This was more a measure of the recording’s balance that a shortcoming on the speakers’ part, and while purists might frown at such attenuation, it highlighted the additional versatility those controls provide, if used with care.

Metheny’s guitar sounded smooth and mellow, though, and the JBLs afforded it ample presence and timbre. The delivery was rich without sounding too abundant, allowing his flowing style to be interpreted beautifully.

The guitar provided a smooth, easy counterpoint to the spiky, incisive percussion. Staging was expansive, easily capturing the ambience of the recording, and allowing the music to escape the physical constraints of those bulky cabinets.

Indeed, you really do forget that they are there, becoming completely engaged by the music instead.

On the Mathias Landaeus Trio’s marvellous Opening set, the title track focuses on an expressive piano in close conversation with a sonorous upright bass, while the thoughtful percussion keeps careful, almost delicate pace.

The piano sounded vivid and intense, and the speakers had no trouble following the often intricate passages, delivering them with an almost liquid ease that was utterly enthralling.

Fine detail and nuances were presented with clarity and assurance, while always remaining perfectly integrated into the overall sonic picture, adding to a pervasive sense of presence and realism.

Indeed, there was something inherently visceral and exciting about the sound that was quite different from ‘normal’ hi-fi speakers. The JBLs had a compelling ability to make the music sound convincing, and, yes, authentic.

Compression horns look after midrange and treble

The Reference Recordings release of Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra, performed by the Kansas City Symphony under Michael Stern’s baton, is a majestic rendering of this classical work – and the JBLs made the most of it.

They had the tonal scope, the timbre and the sheer pace to bring the full impact and muscle of the orchestra into the listening room.

The 4429s easily reflected the substantial, challenging dynamic swings of this performance, while capturing both the intensity and the delicacy of the music with a relaxed ease, but without blunting the music’s energy or passion.

The orchestra’s physical presence was potently rendered, so that individual instruments were instantly and easily identifiable across a vast and deep soundstage. Again, the tonal generosity of the JBLs stood them in good stead, ensuring that the orchestra’s full impact could be as much heard as felt. Yes sir, those big 300 mm woofers move a lot of air!

On the classic Doobie Brothers track ‘Black Water, from their Southbound album, it was the transparency and sparkle of this multi-layered recording that stood out: it rewards the resolution and the dynamics of a good system with a sonic feast.

Despite a busy arrangement with lots of musical action, the JBLs remained unflustered and precise, providing a full-hued, foot-tapping and detailed delivery. Again, expansive staging afforded the performance plenty of breathing space.

The big monitors precisely rendered the splendid fiddles, the boisterous bass and the bright guitars, but also showed off a talent for cohesion that ensured a seamless, immersive sound picture and a pervasive dimensionality.

The 4429s are studio monitors that make home hi-fi seem tame

THE BOTTOM LINE

The JBL Synthesis 4429 monitors are not for those who like their speakers slim, polite and unobtrusive. They are unashamedly bold and functional and ideally deserve a large room in which to ply their musical trade.

But what a great job they do of playing music, and making that music come alive, thanks to a real talent for impact, tonal generosity, expansive staging and, surprisingly for such big boxes, transparency.

There’s a vitality to their delivery that is quite different from the hi-fi norm, as if they have a better, more believable grasp of the original performance. And for all their pace and boisterous personality, they never lose sight of vital nuances and subtleties.

Linked to an equally high-quality source and amplification with ample headroom (despite their inherent efficiency) these studio monitors create a magically musical listening experience. – DEON SCHOEMAN

PROS
Makes the music come alive.
CONS
Not exactly a lifestyle speaker.

VITAL STATS
Enclosure type: Bass-reflex, front-ported
Drive units:
19mm titanium diaphragm ultra-high frequency compression driver
50 mm titanium diaphragm high-frequency compression driver
300 mm pure-pulp woofer
Bi-wiring: Yes
Impedance: 6 ohms nominal
Sensitivity: 91 dB (2,83V/1m)
Frequency response: 40 Hz – 45 kHz (-6 dB)
Power handling: 200 watts RMS
Dimensions (HxWxD): 635 x 400 x 300 mm
Weight: 32,3 kg each
PRICE
R89 562 (pair)
SUPPLIED BY
HFX Systems.

SOFTWARE
Pat Metheny – Kin <–> (Nonesuch 44/16 WAV)
Mathias Landaeus Trio –  Opening (MA Recordings 176/24 WAV)
Benjamin Britten –  Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra – Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern (Reference Recordings 176/24 WAV)
Doobie Brothers – Southbound (Sony Music 44/24 FLAC)

TESTED WITH
Bryston BDA-3 DAC
Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite CD/SACD deck
Lumin D1 network player
Primare PRE32/MM30 pre-amp
Parasound Halo A21 power amp
KEF R500 loudspeakers

 

The KEF LS50 is a benchmark bookshelf loudspeaker with an ability to outgun many larger, dearer designs. The LS50 Wireless may look similar, but thanks to its active configuration, it moves a few pegs higher up the performance ladder

Active loudspeakers have been favoured for professional applications such recording studio monitoring for a long time. The idea is a simple one: equip each speaker (each drive unit, even) with a dedicated, on-board amplifier, rather than hooking them to an external amplifier.

The benefit is a short signal path that’s more efficient and less exposed to interference, as well as the ability to tailor the amplifier to meet the specific demands and characteristics of the drive unit and enclosure design.

The advent of smaller, cool-running Class D amplifier modules has made the introduction of active speakers in the domestic environment more viable.

Incorporating control circuitry has allowed the creation of a seamless, aesthetically pleasing system that needs none of the traditional boxes (source components, amplifiers, etc) and literally consists of only the speakers themselves. The KEF LS50 Wireless is a good case in point.

Compact and handsome, the LS50W is a direct descendant of the passive LS50

AT FACE VALUE

If you’re familiar with the normal, passive KEF LS50, you’ll recognise the LS50 Wireless immediately. It uses the same, single UniQ driver placed in the centre of a fascia that curves away from the driver on all sides in the interests of unimpaired dispersion.

The review pair was finished in gloss black wit  blue-coned drivers, but various other enclosure and driver colours are available. While the similarities are obvious, there are also some distinctive differences between the passive and active versions.

In the case of the LS50 Wireless, the right-hand speaker acts as the master, and features a control panel on the top panel with touch-sensitive controls for power, volume and source selection.

In addition to the top controls, the right speaker has a fairly comprehensive rear control panel, comprising a stereo RCA analogue input set, a Toslink optical digital input, and an asynchronous USB Type B input.

Master speaker also houses most of the switchgear

Then there’s a subwoofer output for easy connection of a separate active sub, and two RJ45 network sockets – one to link the RH speaker to a LAN network, the other to connect the two LS50Ws.

EQ selector buttons allow the performance characteristics to be altered according to how the speakers are positioned: desk/stand and wall/free-standing. An IEC power socket completes the rear panel picture.

The presence of extruded aluminium heatsinks bolted to the rear panel of each speaker confirms that LS50 Wireless enclosures incorporate their own amplification. The flexible, oblong bass reflex port still exits at the rear, but is now surrounded by the heatsink panel.

The left, slave speaker does without much of the master’s switchgear, but there is an RJ45 socket to accept the link from the RH speaker, together with a small L/R balance control, and the ubiquitous IEC power socket.

To call the LS50W a wireless system isn’t entirely accurate: each speaker still needs to be connected to an AC wall plug via a power cable. And then there are the LAN cables linking the speakers to each other, and to a network – although you can opt for the built-in 2,4/5 GHz 802.11 Wi-Fi to achieve wireless network connectivity instead.

UNDER THE COVERS

Central to the KEF LS50W system is a digital signal processing (DSP)-controlled design that allows a high-res digital signal path and the use of a digital pre-amp with streaming capabilities. A pair of Wolfson WM8740E 192 kHz/24-bit DACs is incorporated into each speaker – effectively one each for the mid/bass and high-frequency channels.

The UniQ driver array combines a 25 mm vented aluminium dome tweeter with KEF’s tangerine-shaped waveguide, and a 130 mm magnesium/aluminium alloy mid/bass unit, mounted on the same axis to ensure accurate time alignment.

Uni0-Q driver positions tweeter with waveguide and mid/bass driver on same axis

Each driver is powered by its own, dedicated amplifier: a 200 watt RMS Class D mono amp for the mid/bass unit, and a 30 watt mono Class A/B amp for the tweeter. A DSP-driven crossover further optimises time alignment in the interests of coherence and realism.

As the master speaker’s rear panel indicates, connectivity is comprehensive. In addition to the Toslink, USB and coaxial digital inputs (and the stereo analogue input set), the LS50W also offers Bluetooth 4.0 aptX, while it is DLNA compliant, which means it will recognise and access compatible components, such as network-attached storage (NAS) devices.

SETTING UP

While the LS50 Wireless comes with a basic remote control, the free downloadable app offers a more comprehensive and intuitive interface. In fact, it really is the best way to set up and operate the LS50W.

Available for iOS and Android, it allows source selection (including DLNA servers on the same network), and provides integrated access to streaming services such as Tidal and Spotify. Of course there are also the usual playback controls, including random and repeat functionality.

The sound parameters of the LS50 can be tweaked via the app, including fine-tuning its sonic characteristics to suit specific room conditions and speaker placements.

These include the way the speaker is mounted (shelf or stand), how ‘lively’ or ‘damped’ the room is, the size of the room, and how close to walls the speakers are located. If a subwoofer is connected, the high-pass filter point can also be set.

It’s worth noting that the LS50W is Roon-ready, which means that the system is recognised as an endpoint, allowing the Roon app to deliver enhanced, centralised and metadata-rich access to all locally stored content on a network, as well as the full Tidal library.

Finally, while Bluetooth isn’t the first choice in sheer fidelity terms, it does allow content stored on connected devices such as a smartphone, to be played back. That also goes for Internet radio apps such as TuneIn and Radio Paradise.

For this review, the KEFs were placed on dedicated stands, and hooked up to each other via CAT5e LAN cable. Set-up was a cinch using the app, and although I used a wired connection to our office LAN, the Wi-Fi connection seemed equally stable by comparison.

A pair of passive KEFLS50s linked to an Electrocompaniet PI-2D integrated amp provided an interesting counterpoint.

Different driver and enclosure colours allow easier matching to specific interiors

SOUNDS LIKE …

For the most part, I ran the LS50W system without any external sources, using the pair of media servers linked to the listening room network as the sole source of music files.

A short stint coupling my 13-inch MacBook Pro running Audirvana 3 Plus to the speaker system via USB Type B was tried as an alternative, but the network option is a lot more elegant and lot less complex – and to my mind the LS50W is all about intuitive use, minimalism and elegance.

That said, don’t for a moment think of the LS50W as just another clever, slightly geeky and handsome lifestyle system. Once you crank these speakers up, you’ll realise why.

The first aspect you notice is the sheer stature and dimension of the music. The KEFs project a huge, room-filling stage that is really hard to equate with the compact dimensions of the speakers.

You keep on wanting to look for the floorstanders that surely must be hidden away somewhere. Or perhaps that sub in the corner isn’t switched off after all? No sir – no hidden speakers, no hidden sub.

Just like their passive stablemates, their transparency is admirable, allowing their role as point sources to become utterly invisible.

Imaging is pin-point accurate and dimensionality generous, while the tonal range, the dynamic scope and the sheer presence of the system always suggests – quite insistently – that you must be listening to something much bigger, and much more powerful, than a pair of small active speakers …

Listening to Brian Bromberg’s ‘Forgiveness’ (from Compared To That), the music’s sweeping sonic panoramas filled the room. The strings created a broad, wide, generous backdrop for Bromberg’s potent but articulate bass, in conversation with a beautifully melodic acoustic guitar.

No single element wasis allowed to dominate or overwhelm, but there was a clarity and a musical precision to the music that was utterly enticing. The upright bass was rendered with a percussive power that hits me right in the chest, so that I could feel us much as hear the notes.

Oh yes, and these KEFs can play indecently, raucously, kill-thy-neighbour loud, without losing their composure or finesse.

Despite their advanced tech, the LS50W have real lifestyle appeal

Turning Ophélie Gaillard’s lively rendition of CPE Bach’s ‘Concerto For Violincello en La Mineur’, the KEF system easily translated the delicacy and the texture of the cello, while allowing the incandescence of the accompanying chamber orchestra to shine through.

There was a luminosity to the music that could so easily have sounded bright and uncompromising, but the KEFs’ treatment was always musically sympathetic and sonically adept, allowing an immersive sense of involvement.

Indeed, seamless staging, believable intonation and a nimbleness of pace allowed the music to come alive.

Javier Limón’s Mujeres De Agua showcases the guitarist’s liquid but forceful solos, delivered with flamenco flourish and Spanish passion. On ‘El Béso Libanés’, the female vocals floated above the guitar, with the solo instrument always compellingly in the forefront.

The sense of dimension was almost cinematic, filling the room with sound and inviting the listener to experience the musical action. The precision of the rendition was never in doubt, but the delivery of the KEFs had a magical, essential truth about it that was instantly engrossing.

Compared to the ‘normal’, passive LS50s, the wireless system displayed a sound that was more coherent, more focussed, more emphatic. The lower frequencies were more controlled, but also punchier, while dynamic swings were handled with greater assertion.

The tonal character was smooth, but perhaps not as effusive as the passive LS50s, presenting a slightly more restrained, but no less believable, sonic picture.

Use of DSP means positioning is less critical than with passive LS50

THE BOTTOM LINE

In some ways the KEF LS50 Wireless system is ahead of its time. It’s a supremely elegant and sonically compelling counterpoint to high-end systems costing tens of thousands more. It requires little space, and a minimum of ancillaries, yet delivers a huge, immersive and authentic performance.

Controlled via a clever app, and offering a rich variety of potential sources, the KEF system fuses convenience, lifestyle, aesthetics and real sonic talent into a very satisfying whole. And yes, the perfect integration of source, amplification and speakers is one of the underlying reasons behind its giant-killing capabilities.

Whether traditionalists will be prepared to ditch their purist pre-amps, massive power amps, turntables, DACs and transports, and opt for a small set of speakers and a library of stored and on-line music instead, remains to be seen.

Admittedly, larger rooms might need more oomph – something that a subwoofer (or two) will deliver quite easily without robbing the system of its inherent simplicity. And some might feel that the LS50W’s inability to cope with DSD files is an inherent shortcoming.

But once you’ve heard and experienced the LS50 Wireless system, hi-fi in the conventional sense will never be the same again.

PROS
Elegant, convenient and musically compelling counterpoint to conventional hi-fi.
CONS
No DSD support. Not truly wireless. Might struggle to fill larger spaces with sound.

VITAL STATS
Enclosure type: Bass-reflex, rear-ported
Drive units: Uni-Q array: 25 mm vented aluminium dome tweeter, 130 mm alloy cone mid/bass
Amplification: Dual-mono. Tweeter: 30 watts RMS. Mid/bass: 200 watts RMS
Resolution: Up to 192 kHz/24-bit, input dependent
Analogue inputs: 1x stereo RCA
Digital inputs: 1x Toslink optical, 1x coaxial RCA, 1x asynchronous USB Type B
Connectivity: 10/100 Ethernet, 802.11 Wi-Fi (2,4/5 GHz), Bluetooth 4.0 aptX
Frequency response: 50 Hz – 28 kHz (standard setting, -3 dB)
Maximum output: 106 dB
Dimensions: (HxWxD): 300 x 200 x 308 mm
Weight: 10,2 kg (master), 10,0 kg (slave)
PRICE
R35 800
SUPPLIED BY
Sky Audio.

TESTED WITH
KEF LS50 passive loudspeakers
Electrocompaniet PI-2D integrated amp
Synology DS214se NAS
Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite CD/SACD deck

SOFTWARE
Brian Bromberg Compared To That (Artistry 44/16 FLAC)
Ophélie Gaillard – Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach (Aparte 96/24 FLAC)
Javier Limón – Mujeres De Agua (Universal 44/16 AIFF)

In the first of a regular series of reviews featuring pre-owned classic and vintage audio equipment, we take a close listen to the Linn Kan II bookshelf speaker – and are reminded what all the fuss was about 30 years-plus ago

 

The list of iconic British bookshelf speakers is a long one – too long to comprehensively  itemise here. But some of the best known designs include the legendary LS3/5a built by the likes of Rogers and Spendor, the Epos ES11, the ProAc Tablet – and, of course, the Linn Kan.

The Kan is a small, two-way bookshelf speaker that actually lives up to that description in that it is meant to be positioned on a shelf, or stands, close to a wall. That said, it’s arguably happiest (and sounds best) when located on a set of rigid, spiked stands: Linn actually offered bespoke stands for the Kan.

AT FACE VALUE

The Kan was first released in 1979, and underwent a number of running changes and improvements during its model cycle. These included upgraded crossover components, and up-specced drivers.

The Kans were finally replaced by the Kan II in 1991. While cosmetically very similar, the most noticeable difference was the provision for bi-wiring via two sets of recessed binding posts. These were linked to a completely reworked crossover designed to provide a more linear response, with less midrange emphasis.

The drivers remained the same as before, but were now sealed to the baffle using rubber gaskets rather than silicon, while a Kustone block was glued to the inside of the rear panel in order to improve bass definition.

The Linn Kan has always divided opinion. The voicing of the originals was considered too coloured by its detractors, and some believe they were optimised for use with Naim electronics. The Kan II was meant to be more tonally balanced, with improved bass response, and it too has its friends and foes.

Either way, these are speakers that are either vehemently detested or ardently adored, depending on who you speak to.

UNDER THE COVERS

The review pair are Linn Kan IIs, and retain their original enclosures and grilles, which show some scuff marks and mild scratches, but are generally in excellent condition. If anything, the signs of wear add to their vintage charm.

The speakers were thoroughly checked and electrically restored by the team at HFX Systems, but the specifications and drivers remain original.

The 19 mm soft dome tweeter is flush-mounted, and partnered by a 110 mm polypropylene-coned KEF B110 mid/bass driver. As mentioned, the drivers are sealed using rubber gaskets, ensuring an airtight infinite baffle enclosure.

The sealed, portless design ensures that the Kan II is suitable for locating close to walls while also benefiting low-frequency response.

At 86 dB, the Kans aren’t the most efficient speakers and ideally need a fair bit of amplifier wallop behind them to give their best. And because of their inherently revealing and even slightly critical nature, they also deserve a decent source signal.

SETTING UP

I installed the Linns on tallish spiked stands and hooked them up to our Electrocompaniet PI-2D integrated amp. A Lumin D1 network streamer and a Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite CD/SACD player took turns to deliver the musical fare.

The original plan was to place them close to the rear wall of the listening room as recommended, but trial and error showed that, for my ears, the best results were obtained in a more freestanding position, well away from corners and walls. More about this later.

As I wasn’t sure how long it had been since the speakers had been used, I allowed them to run for a good 24 hours before settling in for the first of several listening sessions.

SOUNDS LIKE

The last time I heard Linn Kans must have been a good 30 years ago, when Soundlab was still the appointed importers, and was operating from an always stylish shop in Braamfontein.

I remember them sounding unexpectedly generous for such a small speaker, and almost ethereally lucid, with a talent for transparency that permanently converted me into a fan of quality stand-mount speakers.

It turns out my memory served me well (at least this time): in our listening room, the Kans delivered a sound that was crisply and clearly defined, with a full harvest of detail. They created a wide and seamless soundstage that defied both the boundaries of the listening room and their own physical presence.

Indeed, as all classy bookshelf speakers should, they disappeared completely, displaying a real talent for transparency and remaining completely unobtrusive. That it was hard to equate what I was hearing to the ultra-compact boxes perched on their stands only added to the illusion of the music emanating from elsewhere.

I expected the Kans to be on the lean side tonally, especially since I defied the recommended close-to-the-wall placement, opting for a free-standing position instead. But while they won’t rattle doors, the little Linns certainly sounded more wholesome than expected.

The upper bass was taut and fast, adding useful punch and authority to the delivery, while the midrange was poised and finely rendered, allowing the speakers to capture and project the essence and the substance of the music to engrossing effect.

High frequencies were delivered with a sense of clarity and air that allowed even the subtlest sliver of musical information to shine through, while also ensuring full and unrestricted access to the music.

I enjoyed the space, the pace and the seamlessness of the Kans’ delivery, which made for thrilling and engaging listening. What they lacked in bass slam and low-end authority, they made up for with their wide-open, generously dimensioned sound, their energy, and their flawless transparency.

Those attributes were put to particular good use on Loreena McKennit’s recently released Lost Souls. On ‘Spanish Guitars And Night Plazas’ the singer’s vocals were allowed to freely soar above and across a richly hued tapestry of acoustic guitars, strings and mesmerising percussion.

The Kans easily captured the music’s vast sonic landscapes while paying close attention to its nuances and subtleties, allowing them to capture the full impact and emotive content of the finely recorded performance.

While the Linns struggled to replicate the sheer grandeur and impact of the London Symphony Orchestra backing pianist Maria Joao Pires’ reading of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.2 under the baton of Bernard Haitink, they managed to express the scale of the recording, while closely examining the timbre and tempo of the piano.

Again, it was the clarity and expanse of the sound picture that allowed an unencumbered view of the performance’s every facet, while the transparency of the speakers allowed absolute focus on the music itself.

When I moved the Kans close to the rear wall as recommended, there was certainly a boost in lower-end response. The music gained foundation and stature, too. But on the downside some of the presentation’s lucidity was lost in the process, while tonal progression seemed less linear, too.

Of course, speaker positioning remains a matter of personal preference, and is also influenced by the acoustic properties of the listening room, but I’d rather forsake the extra LF presence in favour of the transparency, clarity and honesty that makes the Linn Kans special.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Linn Kans were always at the more expensive side of the price spectrum in their class, and in the South African context, they are no longer often offered for sale. Also, because they’ve been out of production for so long (probably around 30 years now) finding a used pair in good condition isn’t becoming any easier.

As a result, you can expect to pay at least R5k and probably more for a decent pair with traceable provenance. System matching is also important: the Kans may well be considered too honest for some, and will tend to expose flaws with unerring truthfulness.

However, those looking for a well-built classic speaker that prioritises transparency, expansive staging, pin-point imaging and real pace over bottom-end authority, should put the Linn Kan – and especially the Kan II – on their shortlist.

Deon Schoeman

VITAL STATS

Enclosure type: Sealed, infinite baffle
Drive units:
– 19 mm soft-dome tweeter
– 110 mm polypropylene cone mid/bass
Bi-wiring: Yes
Impedance: 6,8 ohms (minimum)
Sensitivity: 86 dB (1 watt/1 metre)
Frequency response: 70 Hz – 20 kHz (±3 dB)
Crossover point: 2,7 kHz
Power handling: 50 watts RMS
Dimensions (HxWxD): 303 x 188 x 164 mm
Weight: 5 kg each
PRICE
TBA
SUPPLIED BY
HFX Systems

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Lumin D1 network player
Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite CD/SACD player
Electrocompaniet PI-2D integrated amp
KEF LS50 speakers
Synology DS214se NAS

SOFTWARE
Loreena McKennit – Lost Souls (Universal 44/16 FLAC)
Beethoven – Piano Concerto No.2 – Maria Joao Pires – Haitink/LSO (LSO 96/24 FLAC)
Luke Winslow – Blue Mesa (Bloodshot 44/16 FLAC)

Easily underrated, centre channel speakers are vital to the home cinema experience. Paradigm’s affordable Monitor SE 2000C delivers the goods, at a very keen price

 

Centre channel loudspeakers are arguably the unsung heroes of any surround sound speaker system, because they’re responsible for a big slice of the soundtrack pie.

Projecting dialogue effectively and convincingly is a key role of the centre speaker, but its ability to blend in with the front left and right channels to create a seamless front stage is equally important.

The latter requirement makes it almost imperative that the centre channel speaker is carefully matched to front left and right speakers: they should share the same midrange and high-frequency drivers, and feature identical voicing to ensure smooth tonal integration.

AT FACE VALUE

The 2000C is the sole centre channel offering in Paradigm’s latest Monitor SE loudspeaker range. We recently reviewed the new entry-level line-up’s 6000F floorstanders (see review here http://www.avsa.co.za/paradigm-monitor-se-6000f-big-bang-for-the-buck/), but local importer Audio Specialists also included a 2000C for assessment.
The 2000C is a compact centre channel speaker, designed to match the other members of the new Monitor SE range in aesthetic and performance terms. Vitally, it promises identical voicing, thanks to the use of the same tweeter and dual midrange array.

UNDER THE COVERS

Like the rest of the Monitor SE range, the 2000C can be ordered in smart matt black or gloss white veneer, with a clip-on black cloth grille. Behind that grille, you’ll find a trio of drivers: a 25 mm PAL-X tweeter, flanked by a 140 mm mid/bass driver on either side.

The aluminium dome tweeter uses Paradigm’s proprietary Perforated Phase-Aligning lens – a clever phase plug that gets rid of out-of-phase frequencies to deliver a smoother response without any roll-off or tonal colouring.
The mid/bass drivers feature light and stiff mineral-filled polypropylene cones, inverted dust caps and downroll surrounds.

The rear panel sees a binding post panel with a single pair of gold-plated binding posts, and two reflex ports. The fit and finish of the 2000C is good for such a well-priced speaker, with no tactile sense of this being a budget offering.

SETTING UP

As mentioned, the 2000C was partnered by the same range’s tall, slim 6000F floorstanders reviewed to form what should potentially be a sonically uniform LCR front speaker array.

They were driven by our regular Marantz SR6011 AV receiver, with Atlantic Technology surrounds and surround backs delivering the remaining channels. A single Atlantic Technology active sub provided the low frequencies.

Like the 6000Fs, I allowed for about 50 hours of running-in time before recalibrating the Marantz’s channel levels and settling in for some concerted listening.

SOUNDS LIKE

Not surprisingly, the 2000C proved to be a perfect partner for the 6000Fs, providing a smoothly matched, evenly rendered front stage with plenty of substance, pace and punch.

I’m a sucker for James Bond movies, and the car chase that opens Quantum Of Solace is a good test of surround sound impact, steering and staging.

The sound was delivered with plenty of substance and bravado, allowing the revving car engines to sound real and forceful, while the gunfire was both directionally believable and percussively realistic. The cars crashing into barriers and buildings sounded forceful enough to make me flinch.

That said the 2000C wasn’t just about delivering effects with powerful realism. It shone when projecting dialogue, lending timbre and presence to voices and easily projecting its sonic wares above the special effects.

Both the inherent speed and full tonality of the speaker stood it in good stead, allowing for voices to sound natural and persuasive, while still doing full justice to the ambience of the overall soundtrack.

This was particularly well illustrated by the juxtaposition of the traditional Sienna town square horse race, and the subterranean action happening directly below it, until Bond and his quarry emerge into the town itself.

Out on the square, the sound of the crowds and the thundering hooves of the race horses was portrayed on an expansive, panoramic soundstage, while the almost claustrophobic, tense ambience of the dungeon below was portrayed with chilling intensity.

Later, in Haiti, that ability to cope with both close-miked dialogue and fast-paced action sequences was again ably demonstrated by the boatyard scene. Here, Bond commandeers a fishing boat and then rescues his unwilling heroine while fending off the close attentions of a flotilla of rubber ducks.

Again, it was the ability of the 2000C to maintain an unwavering sonic focus, and to provide the sonic anchor to the overall soundtrack action that impressed most.

The 2000C can do more than fast and furious, though. It wasn’t in the least intimidated by the large-scale staging and sheer complexity of Hans Zimmer’s Live In Prague performance.

Here, it combined with the rest of the speaker array to weave a dense, colourful and utterly engaging sound picture that managed to convey the scale, electricity and splendour of the performance to compelling effect.

The 2000C showed its sonic class by capturing the timbre and presence of the instruments, while projecting both the broad swathes of sound and the fine slivers of detail. Equally vital to the overall sense of realism was the seamless bond between centre and front channels, ensuring a wide and atmospheric front stage that was able to do justice to the full weight and impact of the performance.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Paradigm Monitor SE 2000C is a fine centre channel speaker that finds a good balance between physical size and sonic presence.

But it really needs to be considered in the broader context of a surround system, where partnering it with the 6000Fs or even their slightly smaller brethren will guarantee a consistency of voice and tonal character that is at the core of its appeal.

Adding Paradigm Surround 3s or even Monitor SE bookshelves for the surround and back channels should make for a cohesive, immersive and enjoyable multichannel performance – without breaking the bank.

Deon Schoeman

VITAL STATS

Enclosure type: Centre channel, bass reflex
Drive units:
– 1x 25 mm perforated, phase-aligning tweeter
– 2x 140 mm mineral-filled polypropylene cone mid/bass drivers
Bi-wiring: No
Impedance: 8 ohms nominal
Sensitivity: 93 dB (in-room)
Frequency response: 64 Hz – 21 kHz (± 3 dB)
Power handling: 50 watts max
Dimensions (HxWxD): 183 x 1975 x 280 mm
Weight: 8,6 kg
PRICE
R3 020
SUPPLIED BY
Audio Specialists

TESTED WITH
Marantz SR-6011 AV receiver
Oppo BDP-95EU universal player
Paradigm Monitor SE 6000F floorstanding speakers
Atlantic Technology 7.1 surround sound speakers
Optoma HD80 projector

SOFTWARE
Quantum of Solace (Blu-ray)
Interstellar (Blu-ray)
Hans Zimmer – Live In Prague (Blu-ray)
The Dark Knight (Blu-ray)

Paradigm’s latest Monitor SE 6000F speaker might be focussed on keen pricing and value for money, but as it turns out, there’s a lot more to this floorstander than affordability …

Canadian audio marque Paradigm has always prided itself on linking performance to value – and over the years, it has deservedly earned a reputation for loudspeakers that overdeliver on their sonic promise, while expressing a strong value proposition, too.

The newly launched Monitor SE range is a good case in point. The line-up consists of two floorstanders, a small standmount and a centre channel. Under scrutiny here is the 6000F, which is the largest of the two floorstanders.

The Monitor SE range is offered in gloss white and matte black, and our test units were finished in the former. The enclosures were flawlessly executed, with crisply rendered corners and smooth, glossy surfaces that created a smart, upmarket impression.

The 6000Fs are tall, slim floorstanders that manage to retain a certain understated elegance. Despite their substantial size, their narrow baffles make the speakers easy to accommodate from a décor perspective, and they don’t overwhelm aesthetically.

Talking of décor, the 6000Fs are located on bolt-on outriders that accommodate either soft rubber pads (for damage-prone floors) or optional coupling spikes. However, it has to be said that the spiked configuration is a must to obtain the best possible performance from these speakers.

Clip-on cloth grilles conceal a vertically arranged, five-driver array. The rear panel sees a single pair of well-finished binding posts, and two bass reflex ports: one dedicated to the trio of woofers, the other for the midrange chamber.

UNDER THE COVERS

The driver complement consists of a 25 mm aluminium-dome tweeter with Paradigm’s perforated phase-alignment lens, linked to a 140 mm mineral-filled polypropylene cone midrange, which features an inverted dustcap, and a roll-down surround.

The three (yes, three!) low-frequency drivers are identical to the midrange, and are located in their own, dedicated and ported chamber.

The crossover is a second-order electro-acoustic design with the HF crossover point set at 3 Hz, and the bass-to-mid transition at 800 Hz. Impedance is a nominal 8 ohms, while a 93 dB efficiency is further evidence of the 6000F’s amp-friendly nature.

SETTING UP

With three woofers and two bass ports, I expected the 6000Fs to be generous bass providers, so to minimise room interaction, I opted for a free-standing location that positioned the floorstanders about 80 cm from the side walls and 1,7m from the rear wall.

They were toed in about 30 degrees towards the listening position – and yes we used the supplied coupling spikes to ensure a nicely solid, stable stance. Despite their size, the 6000Fs are relatively light, and thus easy to move around.

For this review, they were powered by our reference Parasound Halo A21 power amp, partnered by a Primare PRE32/MM30 pre-amp, with source material provided by both a Lumin D1 network player, and a Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite SACD player.

SOUNDS LIKE

The Paradigms arrived brand new, and my initial impressions weren’t that favourable: they sounded boomy and bottom-heavy, despite my best efforts at positioning them to address room interaction.

I let them settle down for a good 24 hour or so, and when I returned to the listening room the next day, the tonal balance had improved significantly. It took another half-hour of fine-tuning until I was able to sit down for the first of several enjoyable listening sessions.

I expected the Paradigms to sound big and forceful, but given their physical presence, assumed that transparency wouldn’t be their strongest suit. The three-woofer array also suggested real bottom-end wallop.

In practice, it was the generous, carefully layered and all-embracing soundstage that made the strongest initial impression. The Paradigms allowed the music to flow with an ease and grace the easily filled the listening room, and provided a believably dimensioned, expansive and detailed sound picture.

The tonal spread was broad but satisfyingly linear, with no untoward emphasis in the bass departments, and smooth transition from low to high frequencies. The bass delivery showed plenty of pace and punch, but never overwhelmed, providing a reassuringly solid foundation for the rest of the tonal spectrum.

The midrange had ample presence and texture, but remained slightly aloof, offering ample insight and access without becoming too rich or saturated. That also set the tone for trebles that were clear and even slightly bright, but never edgy or agitated.

I liked the way the 6000Fs delivered their sonic message with substance and conviction, thanks to a combination of tonal breadth and three-dimensional staging.

They approached Snarky Puppy’s fascinating Culcha Vulcha with unflustered confidence, presenting the deep, funky bass with power and precision, while precisely placing the percussion across the soundstage, and doing full justice to the multi-layered synths on ‘Big Ugly’.

Impressively, the Paradigms were able to largely disguise their point source role on that soundstage, almost disappearing completely and allowing the music to flow freely, which contributed to an overall sense of involvement and realism.

That sense of engagement, of being part of the musical action, was even more prevalent when listening to the utterly enthralling performance of cinema soundtrack maestro Hans Zimmer and his majestic ensemble, captured live in Prague.

The 6000Fs portrayed the pathos and splendour of the ‘Gladiator’ medley with real weight and gravitas, doing full justice to the deep-reaching bass notes, while easily reflecting the impetus and spread of the strings.

Detail retrieval was particularly impressive, given how densely populated this arrangement is, and the sheer number of performers on stage. The Paradigms never lost their poise, but also allowed the music full freedom of expression, while keeping close tabs on the subtler elements of the performance.

Brandi Carlisle’s spell-binding By The Way, I Forgive You sounded lucid and approachable, with the singer’s vocals dominating centre stage, but never to the detriment of the delicate acoustic guitars, stirring bass lines and almost thunderous percussion.

The 6000Fs easily recreated the ambience of the performance, and painted a finely focussed sound image that placed voices and instruments in a perfectly proportioned, three-dimensional space, demanding total listener immersion.

The title track off Luke Winslow-King’s Blue Mesa sounds deceptively simple, with the vocals floating over a bantering bass and gently duelling guitars on an intimately rendered soundstage.

The 6000Fs reflected the delicacy and the details of the recording with a relaxed, engaging ease that invited the music right into the listening room, and created a close rapport between the music and the listener. The guitars had just the right mix of texture and attack, while Winslow-King’s understated vocals remained keenly, cleanly focussed.

THE BOTTOM LINE

It would be easy to dismiss the Paradigm 6000F as just another big and hearty floorstander, ready to rock its audience with loads of punch and pace, while paying little attention to the need for focus or finesse.

Instead, these floorstanders display a much broader range of talents. Yes, they can rock and roll, but they deliver an inherent musicality that allows them to dig deeper into the heart of variety of genres with both confidence and sincerity.

Add unexpected transparency, and a penchant for generous and detail-rich staging, and the result is an entertaining loudspeaker pair that provides a lot of musical bang for the buck.

Deon Schoeman

 
VITAL STATS

Enclosure type: Floostanding bass-reflex
Drive units:
– 1x 25 mm aluminium dome tweeter
– 1x 140 mm polypropylene midrange
– 3x 140 mm polypropylene woofers
Bi-wiring: No
Impedance: 8 ohms nominal
Sensitivity: 93 dB
Frequency response: 40 Hz – 21 kHz (±3 dB, on-axis)
Power handling: 100 watts maximum
Dimensions (HxWxD): 1 050 × 230 × 360 mm)
Weight: 19,9 kg
PRICE
R12 395
SUPPLIED BY
Audio Specialists

ASSOCIATED EQUIPMENT
Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite CD/SACD player
Lumin D1 network player
Primare PRE32/MM30 pre-amp
Parasound Halo A21 power amp
KEF R500 loudspeakers

SOFTWARE
Snarky Puppy – Culcha Vulcha (Decca/Groundup 96/24 FLAC)
Brandi Carlile – By The Way, I Forgive You (Atlantic 44/16 FLAC)
Hans Zimmer – Live In Prague (Eagle Records 44/16 FLAC)
Luke Winslow-King –  Blue Mesa (Bloodshot 44/16 FLAC)
Diana Krall – The Girl In The Other Room (Verve SACD)

Spendor’s smart but diminutive A2 floorstanders are easily underestimated. But as it turns out, one shouldn’t always judge by appearances: these Brits deliver more than expected.

Based in Sussex, Spendor is a quintessentially British loudspeaker manufacturer. Founded nearly a half-century ago by Spencer and Dorothy Hughes (the Spen and Dor in Spendor), the company’s success was built on the foundations of the Spendor BC1 – a monitor designed by Spencer for use by broadcasters and recording studios.

Today, the product line-up consists of three ranges – the Classic, D-Line and A-Line – all of which share the same Spendor DNA, but target different preferences and budgets.

The recently revamped the A-Line is Spendor’s most accessible offering, with a line-up of four models, of which the A2 under scrutiny here is the most affordable floorstander. But don’t for a moment consider the A2 a budget speaker – both finish and performance prove otherwise.

AT FACE VALUE

As floorstanders go, the Spendor A2s are unexpectedly slim and compact, managing to reach just 755 mm high, and boasting a narrow 150 mm baffle. With a depth of only 250 mm these Spendors are unassuming, and thus easily incorporated into any décor.

That said, the A2s  are handsomely finished loudspeakers featuring real-wood veneer. The attention to detail and quality is evident throughout: from the crisply crafted cabinets and the well-executed binding posts to the integrated bases and the solidly engineered, threaded seats for the locating spikes.

The bass-reflex enclosures feature a flared rear port exiting just above the single pair of binding posts. As mentioned, adjustable spikes allow levelling of the enclosures on uneven surfaces, while ensuring that the cabinets are efficiently coupled.

The A2s are not supplied with the usual cloth grilles, leaving the drivers exposed. The result is aesthetically pleasing and acoustically preferable. A metal grille protects the tweeter from physical damage, though.

UNDER THE COVERS

The two-way A2 makes use of a pair of proprietary drive units. The 22 mm polyamide dome tweeter is liquid-cooled and has a wide-dispersion design.

It’s partnered here by Spendor’s EP77 mid/bass driver, which uses a special polymer cone. The crossover point is at an unusually elevated 4,2 kHz, suggesting that the mid/bass has a particularly broad operating range. The crossover features selected capacitors and hand-wound inductors, both designed for ultimate linearity.

The A2 enclosures use a dense 15 mm fibreboard and are thoroughly braced and damped to prevent vibration and resonance, while providing a stable platform for the drive units.

SETTING UP

At a slightly less than optimum 85 dB efficiency, the A2s are best off partnered with something a little beefier on the amplification front to fully exploit their talents. I powered them with our Parasound Halo A21 power amp, linked to Primare’s clean and versatile PRE32/MM30, which turned out to be a very appealing combination.

The  Spendors arrived already run in, so needed no extended break-in period before concerted listening could commence. Set-up was as simple as screwing in the threaded spikes on the base, hooking up the speaker cables, and positioning them in the listening room.

I chose a free-standing location, with the A2s about 70 cm from the side walls and approximately 1,7  metres into the room. They were toed in towards the listening position, which was about 3 metres away.

SOUNDS LIKE …

The Spendors produce a smooth and engaging sound that is immediately appealing. There’s more mid-bass than expected, and when linked to a rich and textured and midrange, the result is a substantive, commanding sonic presence.

No, they don’t deliver the kind of pounding bass that will rattle doors (and the cage of your neighbours), but the low-frequencies are represented with sufficient foundation to provide a robust tonal platform.

The trebles are lucid enough to extract plenty of well resolved detail, but remain easy on the ear, adding to an overall benign approach. Staging is generous and open, affording the music ample space, while creating a believably scaled, enveloping sound picture.

The Spendors made the smoky, spine-tingling vocals of veteran French chanteuse Francoise Hardy on her new release, Personne d’autre, come vividly alive. They projected her voice with an empathy that captured both the underlying tenderness and the emotion of her delivery to goosebump-inducing effect.

On ‘Un seul geste’ the keyboards are spread wide across the soundstage, with the drums providing plenty of dimensional clues, and an intimate bass adding to the meat of the music. Hardy’s vocals were allowed to soar unfettered above the accompaniment, allowing the full emotive impact of her voice to be appreciated.

As floorstanders go, the Spendors have a real talent for transparency, which contributed to the realism and the accessibility of the music. The expansive stereo image was delivered with confidence, easily immersing the listener in the music.

Moving onto the grittier, blues-laced collaboration between Ben Harper and Charlie Musslewhite on No Mercy In This Land, the Spendors couldn’t quite deliver the slam demanded by the rousing ‘Movin’ On’.

However, they did reflect the ambience and richness of the recording, while a seamless delivery and overall transparency created a full, detailed and thoroughly entertaining music picture.

The strolling guitars, rollicking bass and splashy percussion were all propelled into the room with enthusiasm and gusto, while still allowing Musslewhite’s rousing harmonica to assume the starring role.

The A2s weren’t intimidated by the scale and splendour of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, performed with such precision and pathos by the Bach Collegium Japan. The production’s exceptional clarity and painstaking accuracy was a good match for the A2s, which prevented the recording from sounding too clinical while capturing the full extent of the performance’s considerable emotive content.

Again, it was the ability of the Spendors to weave a wide and deep sound picture, and to meticulously contextualise the orchestra, chorus and soloists in this generous space, that made the listening experience a riveting and rewarding one.

THE BOTTOM LINE

It would be easy to typecast the Spendor A2s as affable and polite. Instead, these attractively crafted floorstanders don’t allow their humble dimensions to get in the way of delivering their musical wares with generous scale and thrilling musicality.

In this age of mass production, the close attention to manufacturing detail and the commitment to bespoke, in-house design and production is equally refreshing, keeping the tradition of British-crafted loudspeakers alive in the best possible way.

Most of all, the A2 allow the music to sound – well, like music. And that’s arguably the strongest recommendation of all.
By DEON SCHOEMAN

PROS
Thoughtfully crafted, compact floorstanders that deliver music with entertaining intent.
CONS
Easily underestimated. Deserve decent amplification.

VITAL STATS

Enclosure type: Floorstanding bass-reflex, rear-ported
Drive units:
–    22 mm wide-surround, fluid-cooled tweeter
–    150 mm EP77 cone mid/bass
Bi-wiring: No
Impedance: 8 ohms (6,2 ohms min)
Sensitivity: 85 dB (1 watt/metre)
Frequency response: 36 Hz – 25 kHz (typical in-room)
Power handling: 30 – 150 watts
Dimensions (HxWxD): 755 x 150 x 260 mm
Weight: 12 kg each
PRICE
R28 000
SUPPLIED BY
The Audio Visual Boutique.

TESTED WITH
Lumin D1 network player
Marantz SA-KI Pearl Lite SACD/CD deck
Primare PRE32/MM30 pre-amp
Parasound Halo A21 power amp
KEF R500 loudspeakers
Synology 214se NAS

SOFTWARE
Francoise Hardy – Personne d’autre (Parlophone/Warner 96/24 FLAC)
Ben Harper & Charlie Musslewhite No Mercy In This Land (Anti- 96/24 FLAC)
Mozart – Requiem in D Minor – Bach Collegium Japan (BIS 44/16 FLAC)