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Usher S-520 Speaker Build Quality and Setup

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S-520_Front1.JPGOne thing I’m constantly on guard about is assumptions. You hear them all the time, “Brand X makes the best speakers,” or “silver cable is better than copper” or “Internet Direct speakers give you more bang for your buck than brick and mortar brands.” In the public consciousness, these statements, once said enough times, start to take on a kind of “truth” in people’s minds. It takes a big product or a big article in the right place at the right time to dispel these myths. Usher Audio is looking to dispel the idea that you need to search the Internet for quality bookshelf speakers at a reasonable price.

I’ve been a big proponent of Internet Direct speakers. I’ve reviewed them, owned them, and loved them. They have their drawbacks, sure, but for the price they are usually hard to beat. When Usher Audio approached us about a review, I picked out a bookshelf speaker towards the middle of the price range of their catalog. Much to my surprise, they suggested their newest and least expensive speaker. For a company whose most expensive set of speakers tops $16k, to recommend a $400 pair of bookshelves showed a lot of confidence. My curiosity piqued, I waited for the arrival of the S-520’s restlessly.

Build Quality

When the Usher Audio box showed up on my doorstep, I was confused by its size - it was so small. Then I tried to pick it up. To say I was shocked is an understatement. Fifteen pounds a speaker doesn’t sound like a lot but these speakers are SOLID. After reviewing a number of Internet direct brands, I had come to expect a certain size in a bookshelf speaker. The S-520’s were only a pound shy of the weight of my old Axiom m22’s which are easily twice the size and have an extra woofer! Either they are packing this enclosure with lead or we’ve got a seriously engineered speaker on our hands.

S-520_Clear.JPGThe piano black finish on the S-520’s is without reproach. Clean lines, rounded corners, the fit and finish on these speakers is amazing. The one “seam” is hidden behind the grill and while it may be more visible on other finishes (particularly the wood grain from the pictures I’ve seen) with the grill off, on the black, it is all but invisible. The 1” tweeter is covered by a small wire mesh grill and is offset to make room for the port. The pair is actually a mirror image of each other so that the port is on the left side of one and the right of the other. The 5” woofer is clear so that you can see the cross member of the basket, the spider, and some of the insulation. Gimmicky? Sure, but I like it. The phase plug in the center of the woofer is real and not for show.

S-520_apart.JPGYou know those stories where someone finds a deal for a Porsche for $1 in the classifieds, checks it out and it turns out to be a disgruntled spouse looking to screw their partner on the sale? That’s what opening up the Usher S-520’s was like for me. Everything I thought I knew to be true about “budget” speakers went right out the window. Fully shielded drivers? Yep. Threaded inserts for each of the woofer/tweeter screws? Check. Cast baskets? Uh huh. High quality drivers? Check. One inch think MDF? Looks like. High quality components in the crossover? Absolutely. Every single element was a step above what I was expecting to see. These are the types of components you’d expect to see in the top of the line, no expenses spared speaker in a product line. This isn’t what you expect to find in a $400 a pair “budget” speaker. I just don’t see how Usher can make a speaker with these components and not lose money on every sale.

S-520_binding.JPG     S-520_threaded.JPG

S-520_woofer.JPG     S-520_tweeter.JPG

S-520_crossover.JPGEach edge of the cabinet absolutely dripped with glue and the interior lined with insulation. The bottom had a grey cotton blend that was stapled to the cabinet that surrounded the woofer and ran up the back wall. Around the tweeter was a porous white polyfill that I usually see in these sorts of speakers. Each of the drivers had a rubber ring between it and the cabinet it to reduce vibrations during operation. The crossover was so large that I don’t think I could have gotten it out had I dared to unscrew it from the back wall. Even though it was flush with the top of the cabinet, it overhung the binding post opening by almost an inch! Between the circuit s520_xover_1board and the wall was a dense rubber layer to once again eliminate vibrations. Let me just sum this up for any that are skimming this – The build quality of the Usher S-520’s is beyond compare. After conferring with the other Audioholic reviewers, we all agree that we’ve never, EVER, seen a speaker at this price point with this compliment of high quality components. It is unreal!

Setup

triangle.JPGSetting up bookshelf speakers isn’t exactly brain surgery – Grab a couple of stands, set them to either side of your display, and you’re good to go. Right? Well, there’s a little thing that audiophiles refer to as the “golden triangle.” The idea is that you set the speakers so that the distance between you and each of the speakers and the distance between the two speakers is all the same (yes, and equilateral triangle). Then you point the speakers directly at you (or just over your shoulder as indicated in the Usher Audio setup manual) and sit down to enter audio nirvana. Well, that’s probably a good place to start but I’m more of a pragmatist. Your room probably isn’t set up so that you can place everything equidistant from each other plus, you just MIGHT want to have someone else enjoy the music with you (or you’d just buy headphones, wouldn’t you?) so the suggested severity of the toe-in might not work.

S-520_mirror.JPGNo, I’m more for experimenting with positioning and placement. There are plenty of speakers that shouldn’t be set up in this way – for example those that try to attain a flat off-axis response as they will sound bright pointed right at you. You’ll never know what will work for your ears or your room until you try. My first question after I unpacked the speakers was, “Which side does the port go on, inside or outside?” There didn’t really seem to be any clear directions in the manual so I tried both. To my ears, I couldn’t really hear a difference. This is one of those things that, as a reviewer, I think, “OK, if I can hear a difference here, other reviewers will think I’m cool. Well, I did everything I could to hear that difference. I switched the speakers, listened to the same passages over and over, and eventually just stood about two feet in front of one of the speakers with my ears at tweeter height walking back and forth (about 30 degrees off axis). No matter which side of the speaker I was on, I really couldn’t hear a significant sonic difference. So I set them up with the port on the outside (I thought it looked better).

The speaker sits almost a foot high with the center of the tweeter about 9 ½ inches from the bottom of the rubber feet. The feet are permanently attached – no ridiculous spikes on a bookshelf here. I experimented with the toe in quite a bit and decided that either pointed straight ahead or perhaps with a little toe in was best sonically (see below for description). You’ll want to experiment on your own to see what works best for you.

audioseries.jpgEmotiva Audio was gracious enough to provide their Reference Audio Series which consists of the RSP-1 stereo preamplifier and the RPA-1 stereo amp. This is an analogue only system which does very little to alter the signal other than providing a summed filtered RCA output so that you can utilize a subwoofer. At 200 watts per channel, the dual mono configuration of the RPA-1 will provide more than enough power for most ANY speaker especially the Usher S-520’s. Paired with the Denon 3910, I had at my disposal equipment that will provide the S-520’s (or any other stereo pair of speakers) the purity of signal with power reserves to spare. There will be no doubt that any imperfections revealed in my testing are a result of the speakers and not the electronics.

S-520_bottom.JPGThe S-520’s are front ported which should make placement a little easier than a rear ported speaker. During playback, even at insane levels, I was surprised at how little air was being pushed through the port. I’m used to putting my hand up to the port and feeling a rush of wind as the woofer(s) pump air in and out of the speaker enclosure. This can lead to port noise. With the S-520’s, port noise was NEVER a problem. They are a bit insensitive and I was worried that they may demand some solid external amplification over the typical run of the mill receiver. While I did all my listening tests on the Emotive Reference Audio Series, I did briefly hook up the S-520’s to the Denon AVR-2307 to see how they would react to a mid-level receiver. Much to my relief, they did well. If you are looking at the S-520’s, you wouldn’t be wasting money on an external amp but you don’t absolutely need it. Think of it this way, with the money you just saved on the Usher’s, you can easily purchase a decent amp and STILL save money over a set of speakers that wouldn’t sound as good!

 

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Recent Forum Posts:

natasha posts on December 31, 2009 08:07
hi, new to the forum and i found this thread and thought i would add my 2 cents worth,
i have been running the s520 for almost 8 months now and they are still improving!!!
they take forever to run in just like Kef speakers , alot longer than most!
these are imo the best small speakers i have ever heard at the price , i would recomend not pushing them to endstop thwacking levels until they have about 500 or so hours at reasonable levels, they seem to go very bright in the first 100 hours then steadily come on song for 400 or so hours ,as stated by the uk importer, to quote them, ‘' you wont believe what these thing can do, they WILL just keep getting better’', the difference from new to now is nothing short of breathtaking, set up on all my old gear, sony taf amp, atacama se24 stands , panasonic dvd through cambridge dacmagic, BK sub, the s520s really do like a little space around them to prevent the upper bass lift becoming too prominent , also found they dont like symetrical placement in any of my rooms, when they are in the right place in my room and hooked up to this modest ‘'very budget ’'system the are simply engrossing, they constantly grab my attention with anything i play on them but never does the sound become harsh or pushy, more a constant sense of ‘'wow never heard that before’' and thats with music i have heard a hundred times before,they remind me of the short time i had with a pair of ls3/5a's , they make you want to play more music and i have never used the speakers built into my tv since i got the them, i am buying twice as much music than before i had them , they are not the be all and end all of anything but, they are for me the last small speakers i will ever own and for a second system or for someone on a tight budget that wants a small speaker that will stand up to upgrades aplenty elswhere in the system for decades to come,they are simply superb , the competition will sound better in the show room but will give a far more satisfying life over time, the Usher s520 will be a future classic but for heavens sake be patient the rewards are amazing, must try them in my main stereo only system.
ps , the imaging reaches beyond the bounderies of my listening room and image placement is tangeble and very ‘real’ in its presentation,, wonderful stuff
kaiser_soze posts on August 20, 2009 11:30
What would happen if the woofer didn't bottom out?

“My personal opinion here is to design a bookshelf speaker that won’t bottom out as easily, allowing it to be played at louder SPL levels, but ultimately producing less low end bass extension. The user can than bass manage the speakers and mate them with a good subwoofer or two to get the full range sound without stressing the system's woofers, thus preserving dynamic range and vocal clarity.”

This implies that if the speaker with its bass extension is similarly combined with a subwoofer, that full range sound without stressing the woofers cannot similarly be achieved, and that dynamic range and vocal clarity cannot similarly be achieved. This does not make a whit of sense to me.

It seems to me that with a small speaker of this size and its itty-bitty woofer, that it is manifest that there will be consequences if it extends down below a couple hundred Hz. My intuitive expectation is that the woofer will either bottom out or else exhibit very high levels of harmonic distortion starting at SPL much lower than the level at which the woofer bottoms out. The question becomes whether you design the speaker so that its natural response curve rolls off before it gets into deep bass, vs. design it so that it will extend into deep bass at low levels but exhibit high levels of distortion when played at moderate levels, or design it so that it will extend into deep bass at low levels and assume that owners that want to turn it up to eleven are familiar with the operation of the bass control on the amplifier or the receiver. Evidently, Gene has issues with tone controls, and feels that rather than make it necessary for him to turn down the bass when he wants to crank it up to eleven, the manufacturer of the speaker should design it so that the response curve rolls before it gets into deep bass, even when played at low and moderate SPL.

Basically, it was turned up way high, and instead of exhibiting a steady increase in harmonic distortion, it continued to behave in a linear manner up until it bottomed out, and this is as bad thing?? Perhaps the reason why it is looked at this way, by the person having this complaint, is partly that they don't actually bother to take measurements of distortion and study how those measurements interact with other factors.

Many speakers do not bottom out no matter how high they are played, but you have to ask why this is so. If the force applied to the voice coil increases linearly, should not the displacement of the coil increase linearly as well? If it does not, then doesn't this imply non-linear distortion? In most speakers, one or both of two things will happen to prevent the coil from reaching the hard limit of its travel. In the ideal, the surround and the spider behave as ideal springs (and dampers), which means that there is a linear relationship between displacement and force. In reality, as they are stretched to their limits, the ratio of force to displacement increases, i.e., doubling the force no longer doubles the displacement. Additionally, and contrary to what I often read, overhung voice coils do not ever actually overhang the gap, because of all the stray flux. This is especially true when the magnet assembly is joined to a basket made of stamped ferromagnetic steel. The strength of the magnetic field experienced by the voice coil diminishes as it moves away from the midpoint of the gap, and as it does, the ratio of force to displacement changes. The electromagnetic force weakens as the coil displacement increases, the effect of which is equivalent to the opposing force (due to the surround and spider) increasing in a non-linear manner as the displacement increases.

These non-linear effects conspire. The net effect is that instead of the driver hitting a hard bottom, it hits a soft bottom, and it starts to do this long before the hard bottom would otherwise be felt. In practice, it is these distortion-inducing effects, and not the intentional application of high-pass filtering, that prevents most speakers from bottoming out. The reason they do not bottom out, in other words, is because they are designed in a way such that the distortion increases gradually from a moderate SPL and increases more rapidly than the SPL. It is analogous to “soft-clipping” circuits, which some people like. You can design an amplifier so that it will exhibit “soft clipping”, but the price paid is invariably that the level of non-linear distortion will increase dramatically and before the hard clipping level would otherwise be reached. It is a dumb idea, and a better idea is to put idiot lights on the front of the amp so that audiophiles who actually are deaf because they always play stuff too loud can tell when the amp is clipping. By analogy, it makes sense to think of the woofer bottoming as an idiot light of a similar sort. The alternative would be to alter the driver so that it is inherently inferior and so that instead of bottoming out, it exhibits distortion that a good many audiophiles are evidently incapable of hearing. A loudspeaker review that does not at least attempt to measure flatness of frequency response and non-linear distortion is about as useful as human excrement, and the reason, for the lack of meaningful insight into the reported behavior of this woofer, is due in no small measure to the fact that no meaningful testing of any sort was done with this speaker. All they actually did was open it up and take some pictures, and offer some purely subjective and inherently worthless opinions on the quality of its sound. Well, given that they are selling these speakers and that they represent themselves as providing a greater service (which they do), I suppose that's the least they could do for us.
droht posts on July 15, 2009 11:17
Matt34, post: 594571
The audioholics store has them for $400 with free shipping.

Nice! I totally missed that…now where can I put another pair of speakers…
Lordoftherings posts on July 12, 2009 08:52
Matt34, post: 594571
The audioholics store has them for $400 with free shipping.

Hey Matt, did you listen to them personally?
Matt34 posts on July 10, 2009 15:38
droht, post: 594566
I think the Ushers are $479 now, but still may be the best bang for buck speaker out there. They come up on the used market fairly often for <$325. Hard to beat that.

The audioholics store has them for $400 with free shipping.
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