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Usher S-520 Speaker Listening Tests and Conclusion

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If there is a theme of the listening section of this review, it is “clear”. I’ve had a lot of speakers in for review in the last few years and NONE have had the detail and clarity that the Usher S-520’s have. My own reference speakers - the Axiom m60’s sounded like they had a sheet thrown over them in comparison (not a blanket, mind you, a sheet). This level of detail reveals things in recordings that you’ve never noticed before. It also tends to lead people to a “bright” description. Even familiar recordings will suddenly have a depth that you didn’t know existed. Rather than wax poetic, why don’t I get right to the tests?

CD: Yello – the eye

yello.jpgWell, you knew this one was coming. As always I was looking at imaging and I was worried primarily about placement and toe in. The off axis response of the S-520s was remarkably uniform out to about 30 degrees on each side. The only real difference I heard was between directly on axis and off (meaning directly in front of the speaker as compared to a little off to one side). For the purposes of imaging and presenting a coherent soundstage, toe in and port side didn’t seem to make much of a difference. If you are going to change the positioning of these speakers, it will NOT be because of the imaging because the imaging didn’t seem to change that much with different degrees of toe-in. Generally, the imagining was good but it never really had the unity and cohesiveness that I’ve experienced with my reference speakers or others. Instruments were placed in the soundstage but they didn’t have the three dimensional quality I’ve heard in the past.

CD: Bang & Olufsen Vol. XIII – The Sound of Perfection

I acquired this CD on my trip to B&O a while back. At first listen, I only really liked one song but a few of the others have grown on me. In particular, Maggie Reilly’s Close your Eyes (track 4) has grown on me for its crazy audio quality and alluring timbre. This ballad is recorded with such high fidelity that you feel like you are inside the microphone. As I played around with the toe in, I began to realize that I preferred the on axis setup. The sound was more present, more immediate. Regardless of toe in, the bass was extremely tight and the piano lifelike. I hate saying this because I sound like one of those reviewers, but it was like a veil was lifted. Honestly. The holdover on notes was reduced, everything was tighter and clearer, and sounds that were masked by held over notes were now audible. For the first time, I could hear the felt on the piano rub on the strings. When you play a piano, you’ve heard that sound and can identify it readily. But you are not used to hearing it so clearly in reproduced music. Suddenly, I was hearing it again.

DTS CD: Diana Krall – Love Scenes (read the review)

krall.jpgOk, I know this isn’t a two channel CD and I’m playing it though a two channel preamp but I like it and most of the material is in the right and left channels anyhow. Diana Krall’s venerable CD is a staple in a reviewer’s library. I’ve even been to “hi-end” boutique shops that sport the CD and/or vinyl versions of this album. Listening to Diana Krall’s voice though the Usher S-520’s was like being in the room with her. Every moment of silence, every note, every breath, every word was immediate, was present. You know what? I don’t even believe me. I’m writing this and thinking, “I can’t possibly mean this can I?” But I’m listening to it right now, I’m thinking all these things. I can’t help but challenge you to go out and demo these speakers and see if you agree.

DVD-A: Porcupine Tree – Deadwing (read the review)

Deadwing.jpgI reviewed this album a little while back and for the most part it is a good listen. The style is a little inconsistent so for most people, they are going to love some of the songs and loath the rest. The thing about detailed speakers is that they tend to be unforgiving. You put in well recorded music and you can have a transcendent experience. You put in compressed or poorly mastered music and they’ll let you experience every agonizing moment of it. While I’m not suggesting that Deadwing has poor audio quality (far from it) but there were certain decisions made in order to get the sound they wanted (i.e. distortion, reverb, and feedback). This means that during some of the faster tracks, the guitar can become a little fatiguing. I found that while I preferred the S-520’s pointed directly at me (or near to it) for the ballads (and most of the other listening I did), on these faster tracks, I preferred them pointed out. Even on the ballads and other music they sounded great pointed out but I felt they sounded a little better pointed at me. As a concession, I generally kept them facing straight ahead or with a slight toe in (maybe 10 degrees) during causal listening. Even in this configuration with this type of music I found them a little bright.

Recommendations

Are you kidding? If you’re looking at bookshelf speakers, try to find someplace to listen to the S-520s. You’ll have to locate a dealer which might be a problem for some but do what you can to get a listening session. Bring your favorite music (and a large selection). Plan to spend some time. The Usher Audio S-520’s are worth it. My only suggestion? Don’t listen to these first. Listen to everything else you can get your hands on first. Cause you’re probably going to walk out with these speakers. Better you should be sure of your purchase at the time rather than wonder if that Audioholics guy really knew what he was talking about. My only caveat is that in the wrong room (read – lots of hard surfaces) the “revealing” nature of these speakers will cross over from “a bit bright” to “oh my god my ears.” You’ll want to make sure that this type of sound is for you.

Conclusion

S-520_Front2.JPGCan you tell I like these speakers? For a while I’ve been getting a reputation among my peers as being too harsh – too hard on products. I don’t know how they are going to react to this review, but I know how you should. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest dealer to get a session with these speakers. The build quality is without equal, the component quality rivals (and bests) speakers much more expensive, and the sound if phenomenal. As far as I’m concerned, these are THE budget bookshelf speakers to beat.

About Usher Audio

Usher Audio Technology speakers and electronics are built for the experienced listener who just won’t compromise on sound quality even at moderate prices. Our loudspeakers are produced with skill and pride in an ultra-modern factory in Taiwan with great attention to manufacturing efficiency and productivity, turning out beautifully-crafted speaker systems incorporating advanced technologies like beryllium midrange drivers to match Usher’s superb beryllium tweeters.

Usher’s designs are optimized from the start of the manufacturing process with full confidence that Mr. Tsai and his dedicated employees are as devoted to perfectionist sound, surprising value, and extraordinary craftsmanship as importer MusikMatters is.

We are very happy to have Dr. Joseph D'Appolito as Usher’s technical consultant since early 2000. He provides guidance on all our speakers’ crossover designs. A world-renowned authority in audio and acoustics, he specializes in loudspeaker system design with credentials galore: BEE, SMEE, EE and Ph.D., degrees from RPI, MIT and the University of Massachusetts. As a member of the Audio Engineering Society, Dr. D'Appolito has published over 30 journal and conference papers. His most popular and influential brainchild has to be the MTM (midrange/tweeter/midrange vertical array) commonly known as the D'Appolito Configuration that’s used by dozens of manufacturers throughout the world

The Score Card

The scoring below is based on each piece of equipment doing the duty it is designed for. The numbers are weighed heavily with respect to the individual cost of each unit, thus giving a rating roughly equal to:

Performance × Price Factor/Value = Rating

Audioholics.com note: The ratings indicated below are based on subjective listening and objective testing of the product in question. The rating scale is based on performance/value ratio. If you notice better performing products in future reviews that have lower numbers in certain areas, be aware that the value factor is most likely the culprit. Other Audioholics reviewers may rate products solely based on performance, and each reviewer has his/her own system for ratings.

Audioholics Rating Scale

  • StarStarStarStarStar — Excellent
  • StarStarStarStar — Very Good
  • StarStarStar — Good
  • StarStar — Fair
  • Star — Poor
MetricRating
Build QualityStarStarStarStarStar
AppearanceStarStarStarStarStar
Treble ExtensionStarStarStarStarStar
Treble SmoothnessStarStarStarStar
Midrange AccuracyStarStarStarStarStar
Bass ExtensionStarStarStarStar
Bass AccuracyStarStarStarStarStar
ImagingStarStarStar
SoundstageStarStarStarStar
Dynamic RangeStarStarStar
Fit and FinishStarStarStarStarStar
PerformanceStarStarStarStarhalf-star
ValueStarStarStarStarStar
About the author:
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As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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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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