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Reviewer on the Run, Part IV: Speakers – Completing the Basic System

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When I first became interested in higher-end audio I read magazine reviews.  Being in Canada one of the more readily attainable magazines was UHF Magazine based in Quebec, which is still going strong.  Their advice column always stressed the importance of source first.  No matter how good the amplifier or speakers they can’t fix problems with a poor source.  While it always made logical sense it was a difficult thing to compare when browsing at the local dealer, because most of the time all of the equipment is unfamiliar and it is difficult to assess which component is responsible for which strength or weakness.

Speaker hunting is another particularly difficult process because many will cross speakers off their list for being bright, or not having a good soundstage or any other host of reasons which may in fact be the fault of the source and/or amplifier.  We’ve all seen the shoddy treatment of speakers at big box chains.  Several fairly good budget speakers have no doubt been lost in the sea of switch boxes and the dreaded wall of loudspeakers demoed in terrible A/B comparisons, cloying for attention with levels not remotely matched.  Whichever the dealer wants to sell that week will usually be the one with the tilted up treble or bass.

Hong Kong’s audio shops fall into those type of stores as well, unfortunately.  With space being limited there are stores with perhaps ten to twenty pairs of loudspeakers all sitting side by side or behind one another in a room that is probably a generous  18′ X 20′.  They do what they can when you want to audition something  putting the speakers up in the front and you choose whichever amp you want to audition; at least they don’t use a switch box.  Still, such auditions really are for folks who plan to buy something they read a review of in a magazine and that looks good.  They then go through the motion of auditioning the product and confirm that it’s good and hand over their credit card.

The problem is that you really can’t glean much of anything from such auditions because with all the sympathetic vibrations from the other loudspeakers, coupled with all the surrounding interference such auditions are on par if not worse than going to an audio show.  Indeed, under show conditions you generally have manufacturer reps setting the gear up properly and rarely have more than one or two pairs of speakers in the room.

So why the preamble?  Well it’s to illustrate that a lot of otherwise fine loudspeakers may in fact be just as viable as the speaker I ended up buying, but manufacturers seem fine with allowing their speakers to be sold in places that can’t demonstrate their products in the best light, or even a good light.  So many of these speakers  were cut from my list early simply because there was no way for me to hear what they were capable of, and while I am a reviewer I can’t bring in fifty pairs of loudspeakers to determine if the “coal” I heard in the store is in fact a diamond with proper set up.  And while some of these speakers have good reviews, the sad fact is most gear gets good reviews so it’s very difficult for readers to truly separate the “truly good” from the gear that merely gets “good reviews.” (Dagogo Reviewers solicit and welcome products that interest them.  I, in turn, am aware of each reviewer’s preference and avoid getting them products that they don’t like.  It’s not hard to predict the outcome of a review by getting a reviewer known for his penchant for single-driver speakers a pair of 5-driver, 3-way speakers to review. -Pub.)

With that out of the way, a lot of mainstream loudspeakers that get nice write ups in various publications were crossed off my list.  Some speakers for example are quite nice budget speakers but were in truly abysmal displays such as being placed on glass shelves at head level (while standing) connected to very cheap, rough sounding tube amplifiers and iPod-based systems.  The sound was just utterly reprehensible.  Fortunately, I know some of these big name speakers to be quite a bit better but when making a buying decision they got crossed off the list, because if the manufacturer doesn’t care to ensure their equipment is being demonstrated well by competent dealers, then why should I take the chance?

That leaves the dealers who carry fewer lines and attempt to present them properly.  One dealer, for example, carries Line Magnetic and Melody amplifiers with $20,000 ATC SCM 150 speakers and Zu Audio loudspeakers.  This dealer was where I would later purchase the Line Magnetic CD 215.  The importance of good demos is critical.

When looking for budget loudspeakers, good set-ups are hard to find.  Dealers pay high rent and so these dealers who carry only one or two lines as opposed to 20, are selling expensive higher profit margin loudspeakers.  Indeed, the aforementioned dealer with the ATC speakers wasn’t there to sell loudspeakers.  He uses them to sell his various amplifier lines to show that tubes can, in fact, drive tough-to-drive ATCs.

Over the last year I have reviewed a couple of very good loudspeakers in the Audio Space LS-3/5a and Roksan TR-5.  Both dealers (Audio Space runs their own all Audio Space shop) set these speakers up so that you can hear them properly.  They made you want to listen and made me want to review them.

Going back to UHF, their editor Gerard Rejskind often made the case that spending the bulk of the money on a source and running relatively inexpensive speakers would yield better results than the other way around.   Well, my experience supports that view.  I auditioned many fine sub-$2000 loudspeakers over several months in Hong Kong.  And of course, I’ve heard an awful lot of speakers over the years in this price range,  so I was fairly well armed and eared to know what sort of speakers I would want to spend more time getting to know, and more importantly the kind of sound I could live with long term.  Being an owner of the Audio Note J/Spe and ex-owner of the Audio Note K/Spe I compare all comers to what these speakers do, and what these speakers do is create an immense sense of musical purity and rightness that I found very little else captures for the money.

So remembering  that about 8 years ago I had enjoyed some auditions with their near-entry level AX Two  speakers, I inquired with Elephant Holdings in Hong  Kong if they had the speakers.  This is where I auditioned the terrific Roksan TR-5.  So I decided to give the AX Two another try.  T.H. Yu, the dealer, began to set them up in their near-top-of-the-range Audio Note system.  As he noted, “why not hear what they can really do?”  You don’t often see a system with $150,000-$300,000 worth of front-end electronics driving a set of $1,200 loudspeakers.  What I really didn’t expect to hear was the $1,200 loudspeakers not to seem out of place.  From the first track played I was floored.  Piano is so tough to sound believable for inexpensive loudspeakers and the AX Two did a truly marvelous job with surprising, full-bodied bass depth and tone and timbre and “rightness” to human voice.

I thought of those silly Austin Powers movies listening to these AN E “mini-me” loudspeakers.  A mini version with less of everything but the goodness in the musically important areas was intact.  After a few more recordings and genuine goose bump factor, this was going to be an easy choice.  That goose bump factor is so rare and for affordable speakers to be able to move me emotionally to the extent that they did is a triumph.  Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note UK should be commended for choosing designer Andy Whittle of Rogers/Celestion fame to make these highly rewarding and criminally underrated loudspeakers.

So there you have it.  A budget system consisting of Line Magnetic CD 215 tube CD player with Audio Space’s Mini-2SE EL34-based integrated amplifier and the highly musically rewarding Audi Note AX Two loudspeakers.  I use Audio Note silver SPe speaker cables and AN V silver interconnects.

Picture below taken at Elephant Holdings Hong Kong.  AX Two loudspeakers on the outside with AN E speakers inside.  The TT3 turntable system taking up the entire light wood rack.  The excellent 211 Jinro integrated amplifier serving as power amplifier with M8 preamp and CD 4.1 one box player at left.

Audio Note:

Audio Space:

Line Magnetic:




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One Response to Reviewer on the Run, Part IV: Speakers – Completing the Basic System

  1. Larry says:

    Richard- just a point of correction. ATC speakers present a rather flat frequency response unlike Apogees and some other speakers with wildly varying frequency responses. It would be accurate to say their small speakers are inefficient (<83dB efficient) but they are not hard to drive. I drove passive 20s, which are 83dB with an 8 watt triode amplifier in a small room and they sounded terrific on most everything I played on them, until the amp was presented with the crescendo of a large scale orchestral piece; then things were problematic.

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