Bookshelf Speaker Faceoff 2007
It's not often that we assemble for a good ole-fashioned speaker face-off. In fact, the last one was in May of this year and was handled solely by one writer. This time we brought in reinforcements from around the east coast offices. Participants included Gene DellaSala, Clint DeBoer, Tom Andry, and J. Walker Clarke. If you think that getting four professional reviewers into one room is guaranteed to yield solid, empirical results, then you are highly mistaken. While most of us did agree most of the time, there were several moments where we simply agreed to differ on some finer points of preference. What we've assembled below is an organized attempt to consolidate our experiences into a cohesive article that will guide you through the process of listening through seven (7) pairs of bookshelf speakers priced from $200 - $850 per pair (and we tossed in an unofficial $1800 "eighth" pair from Dali USA since they were on hand).
We had a nice sampling of speakers, and with the exception of the Dali's we had at least one pair that was price-matched to another. Given the arrangement we paired them off into 3 categories: $200-250/pair, $400/pair and $800-$1800/pair. We also recognized that the Dali's were priced too far out of the competition, but since they were on hand we wanted to see if they were a significant step up and thus included them in our later rounds of listening tests. The speakers we had on hand included the following:
- Polk Audio Monitor 30s - $200/pair
- AV123 x-ls - $249/pair
- Hsu Research HB-1 - $250/pair
- RBH Sound TK-5C - $400/pair
- Usher S-520 - $400/pair
- Ascend Acoustics Sierra-1 - $798/pair
- RBH Sound MC-6C - $850/pair
- Dali Mentor 1 - $1800/pair
Each time a speaker is introduced we'll give its specs - but only once. You can cross reference as needed and reference the measurements at the back end of the review for more information.
The Speaker Shoot-out Process and Listening Environment
We carefully selected
only a couple of tracks so that we could concentrate on various qualities of
each bookshelf speaker as it related to the limited program material. We also
used tracks that each of us was at least marginally familiar with to help us
know where to listen for various minutia and attributes of the music. For our
initial rounds we stayed with “Chant” from Fourplay's Greatest Hits album and “Cousin Dupree” from Steely Dan's Two Against Nature. The listening room was Reference System 1, which is a
larger room (over 5000 cubic feet) and features a complete room acoustics
treatment package from Auralex Acoustics. All of the speakers were, as a
result, driven very hard, enabling us
to see how they would fare in extreme situations. We also listened to all of
the speakers in 'Large' mode with no crossovers engaged and no subwoofer. When
we make comments about some of these speakers "bottoming out" realize
that in a smaller room, and with a properly configured subwoofer, this is not
likely to be an issue.
Some other configuration notes:
- We switched seats quite frequently to gain different perspectives on the speakers
- We level-matched the speakers by measuring each of them driven at 1 watt/meter and compensating for the level differences via the master volume controls of each zone. We also attempted to spot check to 82dB at 1kHz* prior to each comparison but later found this not to be accurate realizing the more accurate method was via pink noise comparisons.
- Only two speakers were ever compared at a time with a 5-10 minute interval (minimum) between listening sessions during which we set up a new test
- Loudspeakers were being fed signal from Zones 3 and 4 (level-matched) off of a Denon AVR-5805 AV receiver. Each channel was muted and unmated to enable us to switch signals
- Speakers were positioned on stands such that they were in a "1L / 2L - 1R / 2R" configuration. This ensured that the distance between the speakers was identical per pair and one had only to move their head 12-inches right or left to achieve a centered listening position for either pair.
We did sighted tests, but made rough attempts to pay little attention to which speakers were in positions 1 or 2. Gene set up each listening session so the rest of us were oblivious, at least until we got further along, which speaker we were initially listening to. We did not attempt to do a controlled blind test, nor did we desire to set up any sort of mechanism to remove all forms of bias during the process. This was mostly due to time and the equipment on hand to facilitate such a process. We used no speaker toe-in having all of the speakers firing directly ahead in the listening area.
*We also factored in speaker sensitivity (based on real measurements, not manufacturer specs) and the frequency response when setting levels. We can easily claim +/- 0.5dB accuracy or better.
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