Affordable Accuracy Monitors
Philharmonic Audio Affordable Accuracy Monitors
Michael C. Barnes, founder nOrh Loudspeakers
I have been interested in audio since the early 1970s. While in the Army, I had the nickname SGT HIFI due to my interest in audio equipment. In 1978, I managed to buy my first high-end product. I bought a pair of Shahinian Obelisk speakers. I remember paying $800.00 and waiting for months to receive my pair. I bought them from the Sound Gallery in Laurel, MD. I built a high-end system consisting of a Hafler preamp and Soundcraftsman 5002 amplifier. I had a Phase 20 turntable, SME tonearm and a Stanton 880 cartridge.
Over the years, my interest in audio became a mental disorder. I had about $40,000 invested in my primary audio system. By that time, I had a pair of Shahinian Diapasons, a Plinius preamp and amplifier and lots of other stuff.
My biggest excess was starting my own loudspeaker company. I started nOrh Loudspeaker about 1998. While I am very pleased with the products we created, the exercise of creating high-quality but affordable loudspeakers became just one expensive excess for someone who had more money than sense during the hey days of the “dot.com” era.
While I learned very much through the process, what I learned that is now my most valuable lesson is that I can be happy with reasonably priced audio equipment now that I know what to listen for.
Back in the 1970s, most audio equipment sounded terrible. Very few people knew how to build speakers. We didn’t have computers to help with all the math. Measurement equipment was non-existent or extremely expensive, there were no computer or loudspeaker design software, few loudspeaker drivers came with Thiele/Small parameters.
There were good sounding loudspeakers but many of these were quite exotic and expensive. Most people who bought systems in those days, bought stereos that were built into furniture. Some of the worst of these actually had blinking Christmas tree lights built into the systems. The turntables used high-output ceramic based transducers that had a tendency to cut their own paths through records. The turntable were driven with a directly attached rubber grommet that fed noise directly into the transducers. In order to get high-end sound, each component had to be carefully considered.
Here we are 40+ years later. Today, it is possible to get incredible sound for much less than it cost in actual dollars years ago. There are reports of loudspeakers costing less than $100 a pair that are pleasant to listen to. The Internet offers advice on low-end Dayton Air speakers for about $60.00 or Micca speakers for under $80.00 that sound very good and low-end digital amplifiers such as the Lepai 2020A+that cost under $30.00 to drive them.
I salvaged a pair of nOrh 4.0s and three nOrh 3.0s from my past. I put together three audio systems in my house. My main system used five Jamo 360 S25 speakers with a Pinnacle Baby Boomer Subwoofer. This system cost me very little to put together. I believe it is far superior to any of the subwoofer/mini speaker combinations I have listened to. The system serves me very well for movies, videos and casual music. I am particularly impressed with the Pinnacle subwoofer which is quite musical but I never find myself becoming fully engaged with the music.
I acquired some Sony SS-HA3 loudspeakers for $179.95 per pair. These speakers were designed to as part of Sony’s High Definition sound system. The loudspeakers sound amazing. Bass extension is surprising for such a small system. However, because the speakers are very inefficient, when pushed, these speakers start protesting and make it known that they are being overworked. When mated with a subwoofer and the pressure is taken off the bass, these loudspeakers are quite impressive.
My nOrh 4.0s are great sounding speakers that do everything very well but they only produce bass down to 60 Hz. When combined with a good subwoofer, the combination can sound like a very high-end system. I put together a bit AV room with a 10 foot screen, 1080p 3D projector and a 5.1 system consisting of a Jamo JD 110 subwoofer, nOrh 4.0 for the front, a Micca center speaker and two Micca speakers for the surround speakers. The Jamo JD 110 Subwoofer is a monster of a subwoofer that has been favorably compared to the SVS subwoofer. The sound for music and video has been absolutely awesome.
My sister-in-law came to stay with us for a while. She took over my AV room which left me with no choice but to build another audio system in my basement office. I had just completed my major investment into the AV room so I now had to put something together on a budget.
I bought a Sony STR-DH550 receiver. The price was only $150.00. I started to use the Sony speakers and filled in the center and rear with my nOrh 3.0s. It was this time that I came across the Philharmonic Audio website. What caught my eye was a speaker system called the Philharmonitor. The Philharmonitor featured the Scanspeak 5.5 inch Revelator woofer. I didn’t know how it was possible for anyone to offer a pair of speakers using this woofer for under $1,200.00. I knew that Philharmonic Audio was only interested in creating great sounding speakers because there is no way to be making a profit using these drivers and selling them at that price.
The Revelator woofers are simply amazing. I used them in our nOrh 9.0 and nOrh 9.0 minis. These small woofers will try to produce bass down to about 33Hz if they are not constrained by a smaller cabinet size. I found that the problem with these drivers is that they only handle about 60 watts and if you try to push them too hard they have a bad tendency to self-destruct. If you manage the bass to about 45 Hz, then the power handling greatly improves.
I then noticed a pair of Affordable Accuracy monitors for about $210.00. I read that these speakers were based on a kit offered by Parts Express. The kit costs $179.00 and requires about four hours to assemble. Philharmonic Audio upgrades the crossover and expertly assembles the speakers for less than $50.00. That is less than $10.00 an hour for the work to put these things together and that doesn’t count the cost of the improved crossover.
I wrote to “email@example.com” for information. In a few minutes I had a response. It turns out that the owner of Philharmonic Audio, Dennis Murphy wrote back. He knew of me and had listened to nOrh speakers. It turns out that he said he had modified crossovers for some of our customers and was very impressed by our designs.
I told Dennis that I was interested in buying a pair of the Affordable Accuracy monitors. I asked him how much for shipping. He asked where I lived and it turns out that he lived about 30 minutes from my house. Dennis said he had a pair he was evaluating prior to shipping out. He explained he was a month back ordered but I could come and listen.
Dennis welcomed me into his home and we sat down to listen. He had a pair of his BMRs and the Affordable Accuracy Monitors hooked up. The first thing he showed was that the Affordable Accuracy Monitors could reproduce a 34hz signal. He acknowledged that it was down several db but that the speaker was still able to produce usable low frequency response.
He then put on some music. I wanted to make sure we were listening to the Affordable Accuracy Monitors because the soundstage seemed too big for these small speakers. Whatever magic that was taking place it wasn’t in the electronics. By audiophile standards, the system used was a modest high-end system. The preamp was an old Adcom and the amplifier was Vandersteen based amplifier. None-the-less, all the magic audiophiles look for was happening. The sound was natural, there was plenty of low bass and the imaging was very stable.
I asked to hear the BMRs. The change was far more subtle than I expected. The soundstage became taller. I told Dennis, I hear that the soundstage has grown vertically. He said -- yes, that is right.
Knowing that Dennis was busy working on back-orders, I thanked him for the chance to hear the speakers and told him I would buy a pair as soon as they were ready. I told him I would be interested in a higher-end pair after Christmas when I got a bonus.
For the next few weeks, my $210.00 was burning a hole in my pocket. I was very anxious to get them and try them out in my room. I wanted a chance to try out my own music. Three weeks later, Dennis wrote me that he had a pair ready and I went over that day to pick them up. I brought them home and did what I always do with new speakers, I hooked them up and let them break in before I did any critical listening.
I generally put music on very low for about a day and raise the volume a bit more over a week before I do any critical listening. I don’t like to push speakers before they have a chance to loosen up a bit.
The first critical listening I did was with Taj Mahal’s album Senior Blues. The first song on the album is Queen Bee. I know this album very well and I could easily anticipate how this should sound. There is a snare drum that hits early in the song. If the speakers are accurate, I should blink when this snare hits. Waiting for the snare to hit, I couldn’t help but be amazed how wonderful these speakers were reproducing the honky tonk sound of the piano, how the low frequencies were being handled and how great the imagings was.
I started to try to mentally place these speakers in line with the speakers I had designed. I was mentally trying to position them somewhere between the nOrh 5.1, 6.0 and 6.5. I then started to choke on the thought that these speakers were $210.00 a pair and that I was comparing them to speakers that cost more.
I mentally put these between the nOrh 6.0 and the 6.5s. The 6.5s used a better tweeter and woofer and also took advantage of the rigid drum cabinets we used. What bothered me about the speakers was how good they were.
There are some things that the nOrh speakers do that the Affordable Accuracy monitors don’t but almost all of those things are related to the cabinet design. I am certain that Dennis was squeezing every bit of performance that could be squeezed out of the drivers in this setup. I just couldn’t believe how much performance he got out of this modest system.
What impressed me the most is how well these speakers played loud. The harder I pushed the speakers, the more they gave me. My receiver is rated at 90 watts into 6 ohms. When I pushed the speakers as hard as my receiver would go, the speakers were not protesting one bit. Every good thing about the speakers only got better as they played louder.
What impressed me about these speakers was their rhythm. These speakers translate rhythm very well. I wound up playing the whole album and couldn’t find anything that these speakers were not doing exceptionally well.
I selected Frank Zappa’s Cosmik Debris from the 1974 album Apostrophe(‘) to test out the vocal quality of the Affordable Accuracy Monitors. The sound of Frank Zappa’s voice comes through incredible. The sound was as if he was speaking through a PA system in the room. I also used The Pretender’s “We Came to Play” to test out these speakers capturing multiple voices at once. My favorite track from this album is Gypsy Woman. The sound coming from the speakers was so good that I simply couldn’t find any weakness what-so-ever. This was a track I used to play on such speakers as the Dahlquist DQ-10s, AR 9s and Magnaplaner Tympani speakers. While I didn’t have any of these speakers to compare to, I can remember weaknesses in each of these speakers that I didn’t hear on the Affordable Accuracy Monitors.
If there was anything that these speakers excelled in, it was reproducing piano. I then put on Alison Krauss and the Union Station Let me Touch You For a while. There is a certain edginess to Alison Krauss’ voice that I wanted to hear. Once again, I was enjoying the music almost too much to be critical. It was doing everything so well that I had to strain to find its weak points. These tweeters were doing a great job. If there was anything that they were weak on there seemed a bit of compression in the dynamics that I remember from listening to the Scanspeak Revelator tweeter which costs more per tweeter than these speakers cost per pair. These speakers were capturing the sweet roughness of Allison Kraus and very accurately representing the sound stage which is something unexpected for a $215.00 per pair speaker.
Once again, the speakers were showing how they can capture rhythm. On the live version of Chactaw Hayride (live), the full rhythm was captured. The speakers could translate both sweet and sour as it captured the smoothness of the guitar but the roughness of the fiddle at the same time. Every instrument was accurately portrayed exactly where it was recorded. The only fault was a slight bit of compression that I was sure would be corrected in the much more expensive BMRs. However, if I hadn’t spent most of my life listening to outlandishly overpriced audio equipment, I would have never known what to listen for. I also have to understand that I am using a $150.00 receiver and not my $10,000 audiophile system I used to have.
A song I have used for years to test speakers is Cherish the Day by Sade. I have heard so many speakers just give up trying to produce the bass notes in this song. The Sony speakers are very musical but they simply do not want to reproduce the bass notes in this performance.
The Affordable Accuracy Monitors handled the bass like a far more expensive speaker. As much as I applaud Dennis for his work, the original designer has done a great deal of the work tuning the cabinet and selecting the drivers. This was a very well balanced system.
Listening to Cherish the Day, it was easy for me to notice the bass dropping off around 45Hz. I decided to mate the speakers to a subwoofer. I used a very low-cost Sony SA-W2500. This subwoofer is being sold for the outlandishly low price of $59.00 on Amazon. This includes shipping for Amazon Prime customers. I adjusted the crossover to about 50Hz and put the gain to about 3. The small amount of bass extension improved the imaging and dynamics. The combination of the speakers and subwoofer was still under $300.00. Adding the receiver, my total cost of the system was $450.00. I laughed thinking about this. I also wondered how my combination compared to the Elac Uni-Fi UB5 speakers that have been highly promoted on the Internet for $500 per pair. For $300.00, I now had a speaker system that was -3db at 28Hz.
For my next listening, I put on Down on My Knees by Ayo. This song is song is sung in a pitiful way, that is very dramatic and subtle at the same time. The speakers captured both Ayo’s unique voice as well as the airy sound of the drums.
Next on my list was Gregory Porter. Gregory Porter’s voice is one of the best voice in jazz today. There is a velvety richness that is very rare. I highly recommend listening to the whole Take Me to the Alley album. This album was recorded at Capitol Studios and it captures the essence of the best recordings ever. I enjoyed the album so much through these speakers that there was nothing to fault.
For a real bass workout, I put on Flight of the Cosmic Hippo by Bela Fleck and Flecktones. Once again, here was an album I knew very well and the Affordable Accuracy Monitors were not disappointing me at all. I did notice a slight lack of dynamics but once again, I was using modest electronics here.
My listening went on for many hours and went on for weeks. I kept remembering performances from my past. One of my biggest surprises came when I remembered Amanda McBroom. I used to use the old Sheffield Direct recording of this to demo speakers. This was back in the early 1980s. I was now about to use Google Play and stream this to my Google Audio Cast.
As I played the song Amanda from Growing Up in Hollywood Town, I could remember all of the old speaker systems I used to demo with this album. I remember the old Fried Qs. Back in its day, the Fried Qs and Fried A3s were the best sounding low-cost speakers out there. I remember the Qs being somewhat inefficient and lacking dynamics but having many of the great qualities of the Affordable Accuracy. Back then, the Qs were about $300.00 which in today’s money would be close to $1000.00. The A3s probably would match the Affordable Accuracy’s very well. If I remember, these were about $500.00 per pair.
I moved on to Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. The AAs once again proved their metal. I was looking to see how the speakers reproduced the twang and it did so with aplomb. These speakers are so multi-talented. They excel on voices, piano, drums and guitars. Nothing I threw at them caused them to throw in the towel.
I wanted to do one more major test. There are certain songs which I find very emotional. It is very hard for speakers to capture an emotion but I find that it is possible. There is a song by Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris on their album All My Songs called 1917. It is a song about a soldier’s possible last night in the arms of a French woman who thinks of the poor soldier’s upcoming fate. There is a sadness that is captured beautifully by these two fabulous female vocalists. If I play this song over my Bose bluetooth speakers, I don’t feel the emotions. I can’t hear the lushness of the accordion and I can’t separate EmmyLou from Linda. The AA don’t cost as much as the Bose bluetooth but it replays all of the emotion.
To conclude my review, I have to conclude that the Affordable Accuracy Monitors are exceptional speakers and an astonishing value. Nobody would ever upgrade these speakers because of any shortcomings. These speakers do everything very well.
Richard Shahinian told me once that all loudspeakers should be windows. When we go to see a performance, we see the whole picture. There is nothing in between us and the performance. Loudspeakers provide a window to the performance. The better the speakers, the bigger the window. As the window gets bigger, we see the same thing but we get a more complete picture of it. The AAs are indeed a window to the performance. Perhaps it isn’t a bay window but it is a window non-the-less. It is a way to enjoy the joy of music without going deeply in debt and it is a way to fully enjoy music while saving up for one of the more expensive AA speakers.
I would like to see Yuth at nOrh build a kit to upgrade the AAs even more. It would be great to hear the next generation of these speakers in a nOrh drum.