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Budget Bookshelf Speaker Shootout 2009

by Joe Pierre January 26, 2009
Thats a lot of speakers!

That's a lot of speakers!

It's funny what can grow out of absent-minded, off-hand remarks. At the time, I thought nothing of an exchange with the Audioholics Store manager that went something like: "Hey, we're going to carry Infinity products," and from me, a casual "Hmm, I'd like to hear the Primus line sometime." Then a few days later, a local audio enthusiast asked me if I'd ever heard Aperion speakers. I said, "No, living in a small, coastal town in Oregon, speaker audition opportunities are pretty limited." Well, apparently a few other people in the area felt the same way.

Cut to the end of November - a small group of six volunteers participated in what follows with more enthusiasm than I would have expected, given the minimal budget-level of the contenders. I'm very grateful to all, since any one of them probably spent more on one of their mains than the street price of our entire shoot-out lineup (for the record, purchase price was under $2000 for 9 pair of speakers - MSRP was about $3300). I guess there was no reason to bribe them with THX and Dolby give-aways after all. Anyway, the casual desire had turned into a fairly large face-off.

The Rules

As with many past shootouts, this was an entirely subjective comparison. I think we had some good ears in the group - certainly better than mine - and we eliminated bias as much as possible, but the results are pure opinion and preference of the participants. In this particular face-off, there were no objective evaluations of design, components, or build quality. This was strictly a sound quality, listening event (although the aftermath discussions included closer physical inspections and comments).

The environment was my 16' x 22' theater room - approximately 3000 cu.ft. – Perhaps just a bit large for these economical speakers, but fairly comfortable for the reviewers if I do say so myself. The front wall and 1st reflection points are treated with absorption. Speakers were placed on stands on the stage which put most of them a few inches above ear-level for front row listeners, and a couple inches below for the back row.

WhBkCablesThere were nine pairs of entry level bookshelf speakers in the face-off (originally 10, but a kit-built pair was eliminated very early due to a flaw in construction by yours truly). All comparisons were made two sets at a time, A vs. B, selected at random from the group. The speakers were set up as A B on the left side and A B on the right side so that the spacing between the pairs was about equal. Each pair was numbered on the back, and my son chose which pair competed with which, and recorded the numbers and cable attachments for each session. The speaker cables were only identified as “White” and “Black”, with corresponding tech-flex coverings to make it easy for him. An accomplished software engineer, but a total novice in audio (where did I go wrong?), he made no attempt to match up similarly sized, performing, or designed speakers. He would try to vary the cable connections when a particular speaker came around again, but didn't make that a big priority. All of this was done behind a speaker-cloth screen wall, so we never know which pairs were playing at any particular time (there were usually a few speakers outside the screened portion, so we could probably narrow the field a bit, but nobody really cared enough to try). When he completed his speaker swap, we level-matched the two pairs with an analog SPL meter and pink noise off a calibration DVD. The source was a Panasonic Blu-ray player with L/R analog connections to a Yamaha RX-V3900. Switching was done between two Zones in "Straight" stereo mode without a subwoofer (I like using the "Pure Direct" mode when trying out speakers, but apparently that won't work when using multiple zones). The participants had control over when the speakers were switched, and always knew which zone was playing, since we used the Yammy remotes to mute one or the other. There was no time limit imposed - a session ended when everyone was through with their evaluation.

Everyone used the same score sheet with 12 different items and a 1 to 5 scale on 9 of them (The other three were comment based). The items included: Quality of high/mid/low, how wide/deep was the soundstage, off-axis performance, etc. (items stolen from a forum thread - thanks!). To save a little time, we sampled various music selections, and then agreed to use a few tracks on a single CD from SevenMoore, a unique combination of blues, country, rock, and pop...electric and acoustic, male and female vocals. Even though a relatively obscure CD, most of us present were familiar with it thanks to Audioholics member Tomorrow, and agreed with him that it was a good choice and "...provided the broadest range of musical elements and included really deep bass runs and super high treble percussion instruments. Some songs demonstrated the power in their songs, and others were as delicate as falling snow. Great group." I wish I could be as eloquent (thanks for the quote, Tomorrow). We didn’t confer during the initial scoring. Later, during the non-scoring final face-off, there was plenty of discussion.

The Contenders

SpeakerScreensOf the 9 pairs evaluated, only 7 were really considered competitors, with a couple ringers I threw in for comparison. My attempt to be clever in adding them backfired a little as they scored the lowest of the group. The 9 pairs (by MSRP) were:

The Pinnacle and JBL were the wildcards added when two of the planned pairs didn't make it. Current street price for 6 of the 9 is under $200/pr.

Bookshelf Speaker Face Off 2009 Results - Pg. 2

TypSetupIt became apparent when doing an A/B comparison of this kind that one could (and should) make the observation that a particular speaker's score will be somewhat dependent on whichever one it's compared to at the time. A fair performer might score poor against a better speaker, but good against a lesser speaker. We tried to minimize that effect by doing as many combinations as my son could keep track of, and that could be done in a fairly short time. While I think he did a great job, I'm still going to blame my son for fact that one of my wildcard speakers scored dead last (by quite a bit), by going head-to-head with the top-scorers too many times. Actually, I scored it very low as well, and it was the second most expensive speaker in the group.

The comparisons ended up being broken down thusly:

  • EMP - EF30 vs Infinity - Primus P162
  • Yamaha - NS-333 vs Behringer - B2030P
  • Polk Audio - R15 vs Behringer - B2030P
  • Infinity - Primus P162 vs Polk Audio - R15
  • Pinnacle - P5.2 vs JBL - HT1F
  • Infinity - Primus P162 vs Yamaha - NS-6490
  • JBL - HT1F vs Aperion Audio - Intimus 4B
  • Yamaha - NS-6490 vs Pinnacle - P5.2
  • Aperion Audio - Intimus 4B vs EMP - EF30
  • Behringer - B2030P vs Polk Audio - R15
  • EMP - EF30 vs Yamaha - NS-333
Which gave each pair of speakers two or three appearances in a comparison.


# of Comparisons

Yamaha - NS-6490


Pinnacle - P5.2


Infinity - Primus P162


Yamaha - NS-333




Aperion Audio - Intimus 4B


Polk Audio - R15


Behringer - B2030P


EMP - EF30


No one gave a score higher than 4 (out of 5) or lower than 2 in any category. The average over-all score for the top 4 contenders was very close - from 3.40 to 3.53. The middle scorers were also pretty close together and not really very far from the top. The two lowest (the Pinnacle and the Polk) scored fairly low at 2.64 and 2.83 respectively. We were all very surprised when the top 4 scorers were revealed, as well as the order of preference (which one would you buy) that was determined separately and without scoring among the best 4. The JBL would have been in the top group and the Pinnacle in the bottom, but they were removed from contention (the Pinnacles were almost removed from the planet).

In scoring, the top 4 were:

  • Behringer B2030P - 3.53
  • Yamaha NS-333 - 3.48
  • Yamaha NS-6490 - 3.46
  • Infinity Primus P162 - 3.40

In order of actual sound quality preference:

  • Yamaha NS-6490
  • Behringer B2030P
  • Yamaha NS-333
  • Infinity Primus P162

SpkrScrnsRtWhen tallying the scores, it looked like high frequency performance was fairly easy to pass, but only the top group scored above 3.5 in low frequency quality. It was also interesting that the Behringer scored highest in only the Off-Axis category, but scored consistently second or third enough times to win the highest overall average score. Other consistent scorers were the Infinity, that never scored first but swapped second and third a few times with the Behringer to stay in the top scoring group, and the EMP, that was very consistent but missed beating the Infinity for 4th because of lower scores in the bass department.

Top scores in each category:

  • Sound Quality of Highs: Aperion 4B
  • Sound Quality of Mids: Yamaha NS-6490
  • Sound Quality of Lows: Yamaha NS-333
  • Rate How Low: Yamaha NS-333
  • Rate How "Natural": Aperion 4B
  • Sound Stage - How Wide: Yamaha NS-6490
  • Sound Stage - How Deep: Yamaha NS-333
  • Sound Stage - How "Big": Yamaha NS-333
  • Off Axis Performance: Behringer B2030P

Individual Performance and Reviewer Comments

I'm also going to throw out a few observations I had outside of the shootout while I still had the speakers to play with, so take the comments in italics with a grain of salt - they're my opinion and the group might not agree:

Behringer B2030P - "Great bass; Clean voice; Natural/Neutral". As mentioned above, scored quite high in all categories. Very impressive for the price.

Performed well in a large room, but for me their best roll is for near-field music listening on either side of my desk.

Yamaha NS-333 - "Neutral; Rich; Spacious; Crisp; Full". The NS-333 recorded the top score in 4 categories, more than any other. It lost out to the Behringer in Off-Axis and mid-range performance. Almost too close to call.

We didn't rate appearance, but the piano black finish put it miles ahead of most of the others.

Yamaha NS-6490 - "Rich, deep, solid bass; Clean, but perhaps harsh at volume; Detailed". This was the only 3-way speaker in the group. It didn't score quite as high as the other front-runners in bass and sound stage categories, but still managed to beat out the two above for the overall "Preferred speaker".

One of the largest, but also one of the lightest - and the least expensive of the group, we were so surprised it came out on top we had to listen to it again to make sure my son hadn't made a serious error in his record-keeping.

Regarding the "harsh at volume" comment: We sometimes had the feeling we were expecting too much of these minimal speakers in a medium/large space at reference volume levels, but only rarely and during a few specific music passages did we suspect that any speaker might be approaching its limits. I imagine some music or movie soundtracks might be even more taxing than we were, and since my son was obviously hoping we would blow something up, we just kept on, loud and lively.

Infinity Primus P162 - "Huge sound; Rich, deep, natural". Another of the very consistent scorers, it lost just a little ground in Off-Axis performance and depth of sound stage. One reviewer commented, "bit reserved mids" when it came up against the 3-way NS-6490 which scored highest in that category. Otherwise, mids scored pretty well.

I cheated a bit on selecting this speaker since there were two other "lesser" Primus models (the P142 & P152) that would have been more appropriate in an entry-level shootout. But, the P162 was (and still is) so hugely popular at the Audioholics Store, I wanted to hear it (since that's what started this whole thing). I've spent a little more time with this pair than the others after the shootout, and in the smaller room I have them in now, the performance is excellent.

Aperion Audio Intimus 4B - "Musical!; Clean, airy; Very nice, but need a little depth; Very clean top end; Could use better lows". These small speakers took top marks in Quality of highs and "Natural" sound, and pretty good scores in the Sound Stage areas. The lows did tend to disappear, though.

I tried this pair in my office, and with a low frequency spec only down to 120Hz this speaker cries out for a subwoofer. So, I accommodated it with the Chrysalis Starfire 10 I somehow forgot to return to its owner, and it made a world of difference. The small sub and tiny speakers really perform well together, especially at lower levels in the smaller space. My wife wants the speakers in her craft room because they're so "pretty and cute" in the piano black finish - sans subwoofer of course.

EMP EF30 - "Crisp; Flat response; Lows a bit too subtle". Another consistent score across all categories except bass.

Once again, I brought out the stolen... I mean borrowed... Chrysalis Starfire 10 subwoofer, and once again a fairly dramatic change. One thing I discovered about these speakers quite by accident: I was comparing the various bookshelves to my center speaker to see if one model had a better timbre match for a pair of towers, and found this pair to have the cleanest, clearest dialog performance of all of them. So I tried them as surrounds and found them very nice and detailed with the battle scene from Master and Commander. Made me want to try the towers with them sometime as a theater system ...next shootout maybe.

Polk Audio R15 - "Bass breakup; A bit tinny; Un-natural voice". Only 3 speakers scored less than a 3 average (and the Pinnacle doesn't count anyway), and this was one of them. The consensus was that the music just sounded too artificial even for a budget speaker. Even with this many speakers, everyone readily identified it the second time around. Someone said, "There’s that cop bullhorn again." I think this is an older model and may have been revised or replaced by now anyway.

Pinnacle P5.2 - These speakers caused a bit of good-natured ribbing at my expense when I admitted they were from my own theater system - just added to 'round out the field.' Even though I had recently replaced all the Pinnacles in my theater with a different brand, I'd always been happy with their performance and expected them to do well. The evaluation comments ranged from "Overly bright" and "Harsh" to just "ACK!." Even I rated them lower than their competition, and I had always thought them to be very detailed without being too bright. I still think that about the P6.3 towers, so maybe my satisfaction with the 5.2's as surrounds wasn't too far off the mark. The average overall rating was 2.64.


Goodies2In these troubled financial times, it's good to know you can get some pretty fair performance at a very small price. Granted, we were rating by comparison, and the competition was similar enough that the average scores were pretty close. While none of these economy models should be expected to compete head-to-head against speakers costing $1000 a pair, there is hardly a reason to try. Those with a modest budget should not care that something like Status Acoustics Decimo speakers, at nearly $3000/pr, would have scored a 5 in this shootout, no more than a well-funded audiophile is going to care about the 3.5 we gave the $130 pair of Behringers. It's best to just shop (and listen) within your budget, and if that budget is a couple hundred dollars, you might find one of these pairs are the speakers for you.