[SoundStage!]Standout Systems
Back Issue Article

February 2002

Bookshelf Speakers for Standout Systems

I could go on and on about why I like bookshelf-sized speakers so much -- everything from the cost to the smaller size to the high performance -- but I won’t right now. Suffice it to say that if you are a bookshelf-speaker lover too, then you probably already know what I’m talking about.

What I’ve done here instead is summarize my favorite speakers from about $200 to a ceiling of $2000 -- some of which I’ve already reviewed, others on which full reviews will be forthcoming. Most of these speakers are quite different from each other, but in all cases they have areas of performance in which they shine. Which one you pick will be a combination of how much you can spend and what kind of system you're building. In any event, these days you don’t have to pay exorbitant amounts of money to get first-class sound.

Word among our reviewers is there are some strong challengers coming up this year that will rival Paradigm’s Atom -- our current king in the under-$200 camp. But you can rest assured that these $189 loudspeakers are still a safe bet. Their diminutive size means placement and setup are easy, and this alone makes for a strong selling feature. But don’t let the small size and equally small price fool you. The Atom’s output capability will surprise you since the speaker can fill up rooms that are even moderately sized. And the sound quality is extraordinarily good. In fact, I’ve heard them embarrass much more expensive speakers, and that’s why they’re a favorite around here. Impedance and sensitivity present a reasonable load, making them compatible with moderate receivers and amplifiers. To my ears, this is still the speaker to get when you’re spending under $200.

200202_axiomm3.jpg (4265 bytes)If you have up to $300, Axiom Audio’s venerable $275 M3Ti SE is the speaker to get. A lot has been written about this speaker, and it has received its share of awards. Like the Paradigm Atom, it is a relatively easy load to drive and can be matched to amplifiers of modest power. The key to this speaker is that it sounds so darn good you’ll be tempted to match it to components costing more -- much more. It’s a high-end product at a rock-bottom price.

Do you have more money to spend? John Potis says the $400 Axiom Audio M22Ti SE is better than the M3Ti SE, but I say it’s how you look at it. To me it’s simply different. What it does have going for it is tighter, more visceral bass, along with a more up-front presentation in the midrange. As a result, some people find it more transparent and exciting. If I had my way, I’d simply own both and swap them back and forth as I pleased. Obviously, that’s not practical for most, so if you can, audition both to hear which sonic signature you like the best. John and I do agree on the fact that like the M3Ti SE, you can match the M22TI SE with very expensive electronics and not feel foolish.

200202_dahlquistqx6.jpg (4521 bytes)A large Canadian company has resurrected the Dahlquist name and now has a full line of speakers out to try and win the hearts of cost-minded audio enthusiasts. The $500 QX6 loudspeaker is the company’s best bookshelf-sized speaker. It has a smooth and liquid sound with surprising clout in the bass. It’s bigger than both the Atom and Axioms, but that’s what usually happens when you spend more money. It’s fairly easy to drive, and like the rest of the speakers mentioned, it works well with amplifiers of moderate power.

The $995 nOrh SM 6.9 is easily the most interesting product to land in my room in quite some time. These speakers are only available direct from the factory in Thailand. The cabinet is made from synthetic marble and is in the shape of a horn. Given the 6.9's size and weight and the distance from which it came, I’m surprised the company can offer this speaker at this price. Most of all, I’m happy to say that this speaker is not all just looks -- it sounds really good too, with a lively presentation and rock-'em-sock-'em bass.

There’s a lot going on with Polk Audio’s $1040 LSi9 loudspeaker, the only speaker I mentioned here other than the Axiom M22Ti SE that has more than two drivers (although with the Polks, the woofers operate over different frequency ranges, making the speaker a two-and-a-half-way design). Pick up the speaker and you’ll know by the weight that it means business. This model uses two 5 1/4" drivers in an MTM configuration around one of those whizzy-looking Ring Radiator tweeters. The speaker is reportedly designed for those who are looking for exceedingly high definition and exacting precision -- the kind of thing that outstanding bookshelf monitors are known for. By all accounts Polk is succeeding because these speakers can deliver a precise presentation packed with power and punch.

The $1195 NSM Audio 10S is again for those who want something completely different. This diminutive loudspeaker is for the specialized owner who wants a tiny and intimate loudspeaker suitable for a smaller room (particularly if you don’t add a sub). Its strengths include a lush and liquid presentation that does stellar things for vocals. Add to that the fact that it can image like a champ. The lowish sensitivity means you’ll want to pair it with a fairly beefy amp, but even with high-powered solid-state amplification, this speaker has a smoothness that will have you swearing you’re listening to tubes.

Amphion from Finland is coming on strong in North America, and their new $1265 argon2 loudspeaker ($1420 with real-wood veneers) is bound to turn some heads. There are some unique engineering ideas in this speaker, including a woofer-to-tweeter crossover point that’s said to be at an astoundingly low 1200Hz. Getting the crossover out of what Amphion considers critical frequencies is one reason for this; achieving controlled off-axis dispersion is the other. The argon2 is available in two real-wood finishes that make it a looker with sound quality that’s every bit the equal.

Speaker Art’s Super Clef loudspeaker is priced starting at $1800 and has been described by some as the perfect bridge for those who want a stand-mounted speaker but want the output capability of a floorstander. Given its larger-than-average size and big 8" woofer, it’s stretching the boundaries of what’s considered a bookshelf speaker. But because it needs stands (short ones), it still qualifies. Nevertheless, this big-looking and -sounding speaker from this small California company is going to be perfect for some listeners. To get all you can from it, you need to have a muscle amp behind it -- 200Wpc are nice -- but once you do that, you’ll hear a sound so natural and rich that you may drop any notions that you need to spend more.

But, of course, you can always spend more.

While $2000 is a lot for speakers that need stands (and grilles), for some listeners, Revel’s Performa M20 may well be worth it. Its ultra-precise, highly resolving presentation may be a little too revealing for some listeners -- too analytical nay-sayers have said -- but others will bask in the glory of what an all-out bookshelf-type speaker can do. The M20 is proof positive that even at this price, good sound is still a matter of personal preference.

...Doug Schneider


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