|Fringe with Greg Smith
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Audes 105 Loudspeakers
Imagine this: You live in Estonia. While the Cold War was in full swing, you built MiG fighter planes for the Russian military. This leaves you with an array of engineers and manufacturing equipment normally aimed at making very strong materials that are also as light as possible. The question, then, is what you should do now that making MiGs isn't such a popular vocation anymore? If you answered "build speakers," your thinking has something in common with that of Audes, an Estonian manufacturer whose products have recently started appearing here in the US. What caught my attention about their smallest speaker, retailing for $575, was that their product literature specifically mentioned suitability for placement against the rear wall, or even on a shelf. I'm constantly asked about speakers that will work well in less than spacious accommodations, especially by readers who are temporarily trapped in college dormitories. The relatively compact size of the Audes 105, combined with flexible placement, would seem to make an ideal choice for somewhat cramped locales.
The Audes 105 is a small two-way design with a 1" dome tweeter and a 6.5" cone woofer. The outside dimensions are 14.4" x 9" x 11", and they weigh 19 pounds each. What's not really clear from a small, webified photograph of the speaker is its unique appearance. The cabinet is finished very smoothly, with a shiny gray sheen instead of the normal wood-grain look. The construction joints are carefully covered over and hidden where casual observers aren't likely to notice them. The result is definitely from the industrial school of design, but I find it quite attractive (especially if the grilles are removed). At least it doesn't look like yet another anonymous box with a cheap wood veneer.
Running through the rest of the stats, the frequency response is stated as 45Hz-20Khz, but without stating the dB drop. Assuming it's -3dB, that makes for slightly deeper bass than you normally find in this price range. The flip side is that the sensitivity at 1W/1m is only 86dB. It seems the designers aimed at deeper bass at the expense of some efficiency, which means you'll need a slightly beefier amplifier to achieve the same volume level that you would with a more typical speaker of similar design. The impedance is 8 ohms, power handling is rated at 75W with 100W peaks, and the crossover is centered at 1.8KHz. There's no magnetic shielding.
Now that you know the specs, you know what the speaker sounds like, right? I'll just end the review right now then -- oh, wait, we actually listen to speakers! What a concept. I beat on my review pair of Audes 105 speakers with the big system at home one weekend to accelerate breaking them in. After surviving that, I packed the speakers back up and hauled them to my office. Because I live at work lately, I've been putting together a small system there that makes a more appropriate test bed for less expensive products than the home-theater behemoth I normally use. Current electronics are the AMC 3020 integrated amp and the CEC 2100 CD player (yes, both are review samples you'll be reading about soon). Because I'm trying to keep the total cost of the system there minimized, the interconnects are signal-tape jobs with Radio Shack magnet wire and RCA jacks (as described in November's Fringe). Speaker cable is 8' lengths of bulk AudioQuest Type 4 to each speaker, terminated in Radio Shack megacable spades (16-14 gauge, #278-316A). Since I bought a whole spool of the Type 4 for around $1/foot, that makes under $50 total for cables. So with the Audes speakers, the total system cost at work is under $1200. The room there is a typical 10 'x 10' office space, but with two normally open doors I don't run into the usual concerns with bass response you get in room that size. But it certainly is cramped in there, making the flexible placement of the 105s quite welcome.
One trait I noticed with these speakers from the beginning is the large difference the grilles make. Yes, there's the usual hint of treble softening when the grill is in place. But what was really strange was that the bass lost considerable power when the grilles were attached. I'm not sure if this is an airflow issue with the bass driver and port, or if it's caused by structural resonance. (unlike most assemblies, the Audes grille really grips the speaker extra firmly) In any case, listening is best done with the drivers bare to the world. I think that's a cosmetic improvement as well.
At the office, I put the speakers on my 36" stands (per September's Fringe), which are just right to clear my desk. I experimented with placement some, but the space limitations really necessitated the speakers be within 6" or so of the rear wall. Normally, speakers put this close to a wall will sound boomy and thin in the low frequencies. From the my brief listening in the much larger room at home, I had the impression that the 105s were a bit on the lean side in the midbass compared with their more solid output at the bottom end of their response. But up against the rear wall in the office, the balance was instead somewhat on the warm side of accurate. I think they strike a good balance in how the bass is tailored. If you had all the space in the world to experiment with, you could easily get excellent results, but at the same time rooms that are too big or too small don't suffer too much. I'd say the speakers live up to their claims of compatibility with close placement to the rear wall. They aren't perfect there, but they're better than most speakers sound in that position.
Because I'd been focused on the bass response so much, I started out with my usual torture test for low frequencies, Mike Oldfield's The Songs of Distant Earth [Reprise 9 45933-2]. The low frequencies went surprisingly deep on the opening two tracks. If I weren't used to hearing this material flat down to 20Hz, I wouldn't suspect anything was missing from how the Audes speakers portrayed it. Moving on to material with more real instruments instead of synthesized parts, I spun "Goodness Gracious" from Kevin Gilbert's Thud [PRA 60401-2]. The midrange was wonderful, with clear and full center vocals. The bass guitar is portrayed quite well, but the acoustic guitars don't hold up quite as well on an absolute scale. They sound decent, but not particularly compelling.
"Secret Silky World" from David Baerwald's Triage [A&M 75021 5392 2] is a really difficult track for any system to master, and it's rare that less expensive speakers do it justice. The cymbals sound good with the Audes 105s, but don't possess the sense of air you get from designs in this price range with more elaborate tweeters (the Magnepan MMG comes to mind). While bass on most songs is quite well controlled with the Audes speakers, with this song you can hear their air-moving capabilities strain as the woofers overload. With selections from Triage, I normally run into this problem, especially with smaller ported designs that are more sensitive to significant bass below their working range. More important to note is that the Herb Alpert trumpet part during the opening is somewhat disembodied, especially compared with the rock-solid center vocal.
Noticing the occasional bit of problem with resolution of background images, I set off to listen specifically to tracks that would shed some light on what was going on. Playing "Doolin-Dalton" from the Eagles Desperado [Asylum 5068-2], I found that the harmonica to the right of center doesn't come through with its usual sense of space and soundstage placement. But Henley's vocal in the center and the acoustic guitars on the left sound excellent. Later in the song, when Glen Frey starts singing a bit left of center, his voice blurs toward the middle a bit, losing its distinctness from Henley some.
Now that I had a more concrete example, I set out to try and solve this small aberration. Rotating the speakers toward the middle, increasing the toe-in, was effective at improving how off-center sonics were rendered. Unfortunately, it reduced the normally impressive realism of dead-center vocals. Curious, I started wandering around the room in all three dimensions and listening to what was happening. It appears that the off-axis imaging in both the horizontal and vertical planes is a bit quirky on the Audes 105s. So while sound beaming directly at you comes through perfectly, some of the subtle details between the speakers aren't necessarily portrayed as well. This is more of a problem in the midrange than anywhere else, which leads me to suspect that crossover-related effects are the most likely culprit.
But let's consider this in the proper perspective. If the biggest complaint I have about a $575 speaker is that the imaging sometimes isn't as solid as it could be, that speaker is doing quite well compared with its competition. In terms of overall clarity and agreeable tonal balance, the Audes 105 is tough to beat. I only even noticed any concerns with the soundstage resolution when I switched into a very critical mode. During months of less analytical listening, I'd been perfectly happy with how the speakers sounded. But, if you're someone who obsesses about small imaging details (not an uncommon trait of extreme audiophiles), these speakers could drive you crazy if you focused on their flaws. I suspect that for normal listeners with rooms small enough that decent imaging is nearly impossible to pull off anyway, the overall clean and balanced sound of the Audes 105 is more important than the fact that it's missing the ultimate in spatial delineation.
While I can speculate as to how a comparison against other comparably priced speakers will go based on memory, I'm still equipped to compare the Audes 105s against a pair of B&W 602s directly. I alternated between the two pairs of speakers in my home system, so that power constraints or source limitations weren't a real issue. The B&W speakers are still as I remember them (see my NEAR 10M review for details), with a hot treble making for a very forward presentation. The bass is certainly on the weak side as well, especially considering how large the cabinet and woofer are. Regardless, I reached about 95dB in my new listening room (a 15' x 23' space) with the speakers 9.5' away from the listening position and 44" apart from each other. Moving the Audes 105 speakers into the same position made for a much more pleasant experience. The tonal balance was nice and laid-back, which is part of the reason I liked the speaker so much with less expensive electronics. The bass sounds deeper and more powerful than the B&W experience. But the price you pay is in peak output capability. I only reached 91dB in the room, and that was with considerably more power. Except for the volume advantage, I don't see any reason why listeners would like the 602s better than the Audes 105s, unless they were fans of brighter output.
I think a pair of Audes 105 speakers are most similar to the NEAR 10M II in their overall qualities. The NEARs definitely have an edge when it comes to clean imaging. But I think the Audes speakers are compatible across a wider range of equipment, especially given the more difficult 4-ohm impedance of the NEAR speakers. The 105s will play a little bit louder if you've got a big enough amp. The 20Wpc AMC 3020 was certainly enough power to play the Audes speakers at a reasonable volume, but the amp didn't quite have enough oomph for higher outputs. I'd recommend at least 50Wpc for these speakers, with 100Wpc being optimal. But they'll work fine with less.
Wrapping up, the Audes 105 speakers represent an excellent deal for a modestly priced speaker. You get solid bass response, moderate output capabilities, and a slightly laid-back presentation that seems quite compatible with similarly priced equipment. I'd highly recommend these speakers for those stuck with less-than-ideal placement options for their speakers, as they seem to work quite well even in cramped quarters. Considering how nice of job the Audes engineers did on these speakers, I'm quite glad the crew at Audes has been diverted away from making fighter jets hostile to the country I live in.
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