This is long over due. I was mainly holding back to get as much time with each speaker as possible, because my opinion did change over time with more exposure to each speaker. I also just received the Ascend 170SE, and wanted to get them into the mix. There is probably nothing new here, but since I promised, here it is:
This review is by me for me. I am not a professional reviewer. I donâ€™t come into this with a golden ear and the most experience listening to speakers. I may have made some mistakes along the way, and my gear is far from perfect. But, I did my best to get the most out of each speaker in my room with the gear that I have, to find the speaker that I liked the best and the one I felt gave me the best value. I have found that I tend to like a more forward speaker, and place a place a premium on being able to maintain a very full sound at high volume levels. My tastes and priorities may differ from yours, which will likely affect the speakers we each choose. If you want to disagree with me, please get both of the speakers in question, listen to them both, and then letâ€™s discuss what we hear. If you want to call be bias or whatever, piss off and get your own thread.
I was trying to answer two basic questions:
1.) What $500 - $800 speaker do I like best?
2.) How much improvement is there in an $800 speaker over a $200 speaker, and is it worth it to me? Will I notice the difference?
To answer these questions, I began by visiting numerous audio stores in my local area and listening to several brands, including: B&W, Focal, Klipsch, M&K, Paradigm, Monitor Audio, PSB, System Audio, Quad, and DynAudio. While in-store listening was helpful, it was often in environments that were less than optimal and resulted in a poor experience (my experiences can be followed in a separate AVS thread). Luckily, the better audio dealers encourage in-home listening. A local dealer near me allows for 1 week in-home demo, and I took him up on it. Another dealer near me offers 3-day weekend in-home demoing. A few didnâ€™t offer in-home demoing, so I went somewhere else. Additionally, I ordered a couple of speakers from Internet direct manufactures. All discussion here is about what I heard, while listening in my own room, with my gear, with my ears.
I mainly focus on 2-channel music. I believe that if a speaker can perform well with music, it will perform well in a home theater environment. This was also done, because I canâ€™t afford to bring home several full 5.1 systems at one time. To evaluate each speaker, I listened to several full CDs and kept notes of any noteworthy impressions. After forming some opinions of each speakers, I then A/Bed them keying in on the areas previously identified.
Receiver: Pioneer 1015TX, typically crossed over at 80hz
DVD/CD: Toshiba SD4109X
Sub: MB Quatz D1200si or Dual DIY 15â€ Sealed Subs
The room is approximately 18â€™x18â€™ with a 5â€™x12â€™ entry way, and one 3â€™ stairway opening in the rear. Seating is approximately 10â€™ from the front wall. Speakers are spaced 10â€™ apart to maintain a 60 degree listing triangle. Acoustically, the room is fairly well balanced, with two fabric sofas, two leather recliners, and two DIY bass traps in the front corners and three DIY wide band absorbers on the front wall. Not perfect, but pretty good.
Cold Play: Rush of Blood to the Head
Dave Mathews: Crash
Norah Jones: Come Away With Me
Jars of Clay: Jars of Clay
Live: Distance to Here
Ray Charles: Ray Soundtrack
U2: All of them
And a few others
Paradigm Atoms , MSRP $219
These have been my faithful rear speakers for the past six years. Prior to this adventure, I used Paradigm Titans in front. I had wished to also include these in the review, but unfortunately, I sold these just prior to this review. Iâ€™ve always felt like these have been a great entry level speaker, with a lot of bang for the buck. Professional reviewers pretty much say the same thing â€“ one of the best value speakers you can buy.
SVS SBS-01, MSRP $220
These speakers are comparable in price to the Paradigm Atoms that I am replacing. It probably isnâ€™t a fair comparison to compare them to the other speakers that I have here. But, they are getting great reviews in the forums and from websites sites such as Audioholics and Secretes of Home Theater and High Fidelity. It isnâ€™t uncommon to see comments that these speakers compete with speakers costing much more. Yes, these were more of a curiosity contender than a real contender. There is probably some bias in my reports; though not against SVS, but against small sealed bookshelf speakers. I wanted to get a pair of these to satisfy my own beliefs concerning what a $220 speaker could deliver. These are really included here more to see for myself and for my wife what upgrading from one of the current better $200 bookshelf speakers to a $600 - $800 bookshelf gains.
Ascend 170SE, MSRP $349
-Spoiler Warning -
These speakers were brought late to the party. They were purchased after I had made the decision to keep the Ascend 340SE. With SVSâ€™s great 45-day in home trial, I still had the SVS SB-01 for a few days and was able to make some comparisons. I also still had the Atoms to compare to.
Ascend 340SE, MSRP $568
These were purchased for demo based on the very positive reviews that I kept reading at AVS, especially Steve Callasâ€™s great thread. A big positive that the Ascend 340SE had going for it was the 5 speaker package price. I could get the 340SE, 340SECenter, and the 170SE for under $1200. When shopping at local stores, I found that many of the $800 speakers I liked were the cheapest speaker that manufacture made, so a 5 channel setup would be much more expensive. This was a big deal to me.
Paradigm Studio 20, MSRP $850
I've had Paradigm Atoms and Titans for the last 6 years, and always enjoyed the Paradigm sound. Iâ€™ve been in to see my local Paradigm dealer several times off and on for many years, and really have gained a lot by talking to him and listening to the different speakers he deals. Originally, I though I would be taking home Paradigm Monitor 5s, but the Studio 20s if used with Mini-Monitor rears would squeeze into my target budget. Based on the many great reviews of the Studio 20s, I really wanted to hear them. Unfortunately, my dealer only had Studio 40s on hand. Understanding that there will be some differences between the 20s and 40s, I took the 40s home for a demo.
DynAudio Audience 42, MSRP ~$750
While auditioning at DynAudio and System Audio (another Danish manufacturer) were the only speakers that made me say â€œWOW!â€ Two pairs of these and a center would probably be exceeding my original budget, but if they could keep me saying â€œWOWâ€ over the long term and when A/Bed versus other speakers, it would be worth it.
Chris's DIY MTM, Material Costs ~$250
Final candidate, and not really a candidate is a DIY MTM design. It is a similar design to the Ascend 340, built by Chris DAlessio, but the enclosure is about twice as deep. You can read about it his design here: http://www.eldamar.net/audio/rs150mtm/
. Chris is an experienced DIY speaker builder who helped me out when I was building my subs. I didnâ€™t really trust my own opinions regarding all of these speakers, so I invited Chris over for a day to educate me and for a day of listening. I think we spent about 4 hours listening to the different speakers. You can read his thoughts over at Hometheatertalk.com: http://hometheatertalk.com/httalk/vi...7d0d6b5259e982
Okay, so how did they compare? Iâ€™m going to break this into two parts based on price. Paradigm Atom v. SVS SB-01 v. Ascend 170SE, and then Paradigm Studio 40 v. Ascend 340SE v. DynAudio 42.
The Paradigm Atoms have a nice, very full, rich sound to them. They are a more forward speaker, with music seaming to come out and into the room. The soundstage width was good and good bit wider than the speakers. Imaging was good; vocals and instruments could be separated and appeared to come from a defined spot. The have decent bass for their size; drums and bass guitar sound natural. Of course they would benefit from having a sub. The Paradigm Titans were even better in this regard. I used them in full range mode for 6 years without being disappointed (my old Denon receiver directed on LFE to the sub). Pianos sounded very natural. Guitar strumming was tight. However, vocals werenâ€™t as clear and accurate. I head several instances of sibilance. They could get loud enough to fill the room, but sounded thin and harsh at that volume level.
The SVS SBS-01 are much better speaker than I expected for the price and for SVSâ€™s first attempt at building a speaker. There is a lot to like about these little speakers. They are a very crisp, clear speaker. The clarity and crispness of vocals really was impressive. They are a laid back speaker, with music being presented on a plane through the two speakers rather than coming out into the room. The width of the soundstage was basically confined to the width of the speakers. Imaging also was a minor short coming. I found at times vocals to move around within a song. To get the most pinpoint imaging, I found that I had to significantly toe them in. However, with the heavy toe in, I found them to be what I considered bright, but I now believe is in the upper midrange. High female vocals and piano notes seamed to have a ring to them that I found painful after extended amounts of listening. Repositioning the speakers helped, but hurt the imaging. Maybe it is my room, but I didnâ€™t hear this with any other speaker. I found the bass and midrange to be lacking. Iâ€™m not sure if it was missing or due to a lack of clarity. Drums and bass guitar seamed removed at times. These speakers seemed to perform better with a 100hz crossover than the 80hz recommended by SVS.
The Ascend 170SE sounded great. They were a very crisp, detailed speaker. Bass and midrange were good. I found them to be a very neutral, accurate sounding speaker. They are a laid back speaker, with the sound be presented mostly in a plane between the speakers. Pulling the speakers out into the room gave the presentation more depth, but it still remained in line with the speakers or behind. Soundstage width was acceptable, extending slight beyond each speaker. I honestly couldnâ€™t find much wrong with them. The do start to sound thin when played at loud volumes, as all small bookshelves would.
The Atoms have more bass and a fuller sound than the SVS. Drums, other than the kick drum, and bass guitar just donâ€™t come through clear and punchy on the SVS, while they are decent to good on the Atoms. However, I wouldnâ€™t call the Atomâ€™s bass â€œpunchyâ€. I was concerned that I might be confusing sub versus speakers, but I got right up to the sub and listened to what it was playing and same for the speaker. Having multiple speakers to compare also really allowed me to zero in on it being the speakers. I heard this repeatedly while listening to Jars of Clay, Dave Mathews, and Cold Play. This lack of good bass and midrange sometimes gave the SVS a flat, lacking impact, lifeless sound. Usually I would really like the SVS SB-01 at the beginning of songs when it was slow with just vocals, but when the song picked up I tended to be disappointed. DMB â€œTwo Stepâ€, â€œCrashâ€ and also Cold Play â€œGod put a smile on your face.â€ are example of this. The Atoms didnâ€™t seem to exhibit this same flatness.
I really liked the forward sound of the Atoms when compared to the other SVS SB-01 and the Ascend 170SE speakers. The Atoms seemed to envelope the listener more, and present a more lively sound. However, the SVS have a lot more clarity in the upper regions, so much so, that it really smacks you in the face and it is hard to hear any of the other characteristics of the SB-01. I was constantly impressed by vocals and instruments such as cymbals. Listening to Jars of Clay, while the SVS exhibited problems with the midrange and bass, they really excelled with the higher tune guitars and violins. However on this same album, the Atoms sounded really poor. With the Atoms, the vocals sounded like the male vocalist wasnâ€™t even trying, maybe mumbling, and I was listening on the very low end speakers. Listening to U2 Zooropa, the vocals once again stand out and are crisp and clear on the SVS SB-01, while on the Atoms they donâ€™t seem to separate as much and arenâ€™t as detailed.
The Ascend 170SE really had some of the better characteristics of both the Paradigm Atom and SVS SB-01. The vocals and upper range on the Ascend 170SE and the SVS is very similar sounding. With simple instrumental pieces, like just an acoustical guitar, I had a hard time telling the difference between the Ascend 170SE and the SVS SB-01. However, the Ascend 170SE didnâ€™t seem to suffer the issues with poor midrange and bass. I tended to like the Ascends through-out the whole range, where when comparing the SB-01 to the Atoms, I preferred the SVS SB-01 upper range and the Atom mid and lower range.
One final thing that needs to be discussed is sensitivity, size and output capacity. The sensitivities for the Atom, SB-01, and 170SE are 86, 85, and 89, respectively. This was very obvious when switching from one speaker to the next. The Atom and the SB-01 were very similar; I really didnâ€™t have to adjust the volume level when switching between these two. But switching to the Ascend 170, the sensitivity became very obvious. I would have to turn down my receiver 5 to 6 db and readjust the sub level. This made switching a slow process.
The Ascend 170SE was the biggest speaker of the bunch. It is about the same height and depth as the SVS SB-01, but is about 2 inches wider. The Paradigm Atom is the smallest of the bunch. (The Paradigm Titan would have been the largest of the bunch had it been included.) The 170SE and Atom are both ported designs, while the SB-01 is a sealed design. I think the Ascend really used its size advantage and port to bury the other two in terms of output capacity. I was able to turn them up much louder before they began to sound thin and harsh vocals dominated. In that respect, the Atoms also had a slight edge over the SB-01. (Note, the Ascend has a larger midrange driver also.) At â€œpartyâ€ listening levels, all three of these began to sound harsh, but the Ascends were still the best. At â€œspiritedâ€ listening levels, I couldnâ€™t detect a big change in the sound of the Ascends, the Atoms were just starting to sound distorted but not harsh, while SB-01 were harsh and distorted. At good listening levels, all three performed well.
So which is the winner of these three? The Ascend 170SE is about $120 more expensive than the SVS SB-01 and the Atom, and it is obvious. The Ascend for its price does very little wrong. I wish it had a more forward sound and a bigger soundstage, but that can be overlooked for the price/value they deliver. The choice between the SVS SB-01 and the Paradigm Atom is a lot more difficult. I think it depends on what your priorities are.
My wife listened with me last night, and I posed this question to her. She chooses the Atoms. In many ways, I agree with her. We both like the more forward, lively sound they present. Of the three, they had the widest soundstage, and at the same volume level filled the room the most. They also had good imaging, that if missing can be distracting. After a while of listening to the Atoms, I tended to not notice the lack of clarity and the poor vocals and just really enjoy the music. This is especially true when listening at â€œspiritedâ€ levels.
The SVS SB-01 are probably a much better speaker when used in a 5.1 or 7.1 home theater setup as opposed to 2 channel music. It would be my guess that a 5.1 source material would make all the imaging problems disappear. It really depended on the song as to whether the SB-01 or the Atom would be my choice. I believe that movies tend to emphasize dialog, vocals, and effects which are either in the upper range or subwoofer range, and if I were building a HT only system I would definitely choose the SB-01 over the Atoms.
Studio 40/Ascend 340SE/DynAudio
The Ascend 340SE were really likeable. Many of the same things I said about the Ascend 170SE apply to the Ascend 340SE. They seem to be a very well balanced, neutral speaker. I found vocals were clear, crisp and detailed. The bass was good and had just a bit of punch to it. They are a laid back speaker, with the sound be presented mostly in a plane between the speakers. Imaging is real good. Soundstage width was acceptable, extending slight beyond each speaker. It has been said that the Ascends donâ€™t have a HUGE soundstage. And I would somewhat agree with this. It isnâ€™t narrow and confined between the speakers, but it isnâ€™t what I would consider HUGE. Chrisâ€™s MTMâ€™s had a wider stage by comparison. I think the soundstage width maybe more material dependant than other speakers. The crowd applause at the end of Hotel California on the Eagleâ€™s live CD was very big and very life like. I had the volume kind of low, and it really took me by surprise. They could be a little fuller sounding and do start to sound thin when played at â€œspiritedâ€ volumes. I also wish that they had a more forward, engaging sound.
The Paradigm Studio 40s were really disappointing. Imaging was good. They are a very forward, with the music being presented well out into the middle of the room. The soundstage was nice and wide. The combination of a wide soundstage and forwardness made them a very engaging speaker. Many people describe the Paradigms as â€œbrightâ€ or â€œharshâ€. I found them to be brighter, but not to the point that it detracted for me. The bass and midrange was the areas I found the Studio 40s to be most disappointing. Because of its three-way design and big woofer, I expected it to have good bass. But there was nothing. It was just missing. The midrange didnâ€™t seem all that detailed
The Dyn Audio Audience 42s make me go â€œWOW!â€ These speakers excited me. There was something about their sound that I canâ€™t quite describe. The Audience had the most depth to the soundstage. I didnâ€™t find them to have a forward or a laid back sound, but rather they made full use of the depth. The imaging and width was also good. Vocals were clear and crisp, but very smooth. They had a surprising amount of very punchy bass. In full range mode, kick drums were shockingly good, in comparison. But these speakers were a big contradiction. I think they are severely limited by their small size. The seemed to sound good at both ends, but lack detail in the middle. It always sounded like there was a lot of effort required to produce the sounds. And oddly, they sounded better the louder they got.
Chrisâ€™s MTM were shockingly good. It probably shouldnâ€™t have been that big of a surprise, but this was the first DIY speaker that Iâ€™ve heard, and they are relatively inexpensive to build. They were very crisp, clear and detailed. The bass and midrange were also good. Overall, I would consider them a very neutral speaker. Imaging was real good, and the soundstage width extended well beyond the edges of the speakers. I wouldnâ€™t consider them a forward speaker, but they werenâ€™t laid back either. The continued to sound good as volume levels were increased. That was probably the most impressive characteristic of Chrisâ€™s design was the very full sound.
Head-to-Head, Studio40/Ascend 340SE/Audience 42/DIY MTM
It is a little bit harder to do a head-to-head comparison. These speakers are so different from each other. That was part of the reasons I selected each of them. I wanted clearly see some extreme differences. Nevertheless, here we go:
The Paradigms Studio 20s are a very engaging speaker, that I enjoyed turning way up, leaning back in my chair and singing along. They covered up my awful voice really well. But, any amount of studying of the music would lead me to be very disappointed with the sound. I just couldnâ€™t believe what I was hearing. In comparison to the Ascends, the midrange was so muddy, and the bass lacking. The Ascend 340SE had more punch to the kick drums than the Studio 40s. There wasnâ€™t a single song that I listened to that I didnâ€™t remark about how much clearer and crisper the Ascends were than the Studio 40s. In that regards, if you were only looking at the upper range and clearness, one might be lead to believe that even the SVS SB-01 is a better speaker than the Studio 40 (donâ€™t miss understand, I would still take the Studio 40 over the SVS SB-01.) The only time that the Studio 40s sounded better, was on some of the Ray Charles recordings which are 40 years old and have a scratchy sound to them. The Studio 40s hid the scratchy sound.
The above can shouldnâ€™t be misinterpreted to mean that Paradigm Studio 40s are a bad speaker, that canâ€™t be recommended. Usually, the first thing in my notes about the Studios was, â€œsounded good.â€ As I said before, they are very engaging and I thoroughly enjoyed singing along with them. It is just the Ascends were a more accurate speaker, and listening side by side really revealed this. Like the SVS, they probably really excel in an HT environment.
The Dyn Audio Audience 42s were a mesmerizing speaker. That is the best way I can put it. Switching back and forth between the Dyn 42s and the Ascend 340SE made me want to run out and buy the much more expensive Dyn speakers. I could clearly hear the lack of midrange and the constrained sound in the Dyn, but it was doing tricks with the soundstage that was really appealing. There was also a little more smoothness to the vocals with the Dyns than the Ascend 340SE. But, I donâ€™t think that I could live with the DynAudio 42. There was just too much missing in the midrange. Also, sometimes it felt like I had the receiver in a DSP mode to create effects, which hid the real sound of the recording. This also made them slightly fatiguing, because after a while it just didnâ€™t sound real.
My wife was also mesmerized by the DynAudio Audience 42. She was about ready to okay the purchase of the DynAudio Focus 220, until she heard the price. Iâ€™m not saying that the Focus 220 is the most accurate, perfect speaker; just I think it is one that is the most appealing to my tastes.
Overall, while Iâ€™ve gushed over the Dynâ€™s, I think I would still choose the Studio 40s. Like the Atoms, I think I would get used to their sound after a while, and really enjoy them. With the Dynâ€™s, I think I would be mesmerized for a while, but then quickly get fatigued by them.
The Ascend 340SE were sort of right in the middle of the Studio 40s and DynAudio 42. They had most of the clear and crispness of the Dyn, as well as most of the punchy bass. But they were a lot more accurate and true sounding than the Dynâ€™s. Iâ€™ve been listening to them a lot lately, and have yet to get tired of listen to them. The comments I wrote down while listening to the Ascends were almost exactly the same, song after song: â€œClearer, more accurate, Guitar more prominent, Everything sounds more balancedâ€ The only negative complaint I wrote down was that on Ray Charles, â€œHit the Road Jackâ€ that it sounded like he was yelling at me, while on the Studio 40s and Dyn 42s, it was smoother.
Overall, my only complaint with the Ascend 340SE is that at â€œspiritedâ€ listening levels, they are slightly thin sounding, and that they canâ€™t be played at â€œpartyâ€ levels without starting to really sound thin, and a little bit of distortion. Some of this could be the room, but Chrisâ€™s DIY MTM didnâ€™t suffer from this, nor did the Studio 40s. Iâ€™m wondering if some of this is what led Steve Callas to purchase the Boston Acoustic VR3. I considered auditioning these also, but couldnâ€™t find a dealer to let me take them home free to demo, I wasnâ€™t really happy with the matching Boston rears and center, and the five channel package price would have been almost double the Ascend price.
As far as Chris's MTMs, they had a wider soundstage, more depth, and were fuller sounding than the Ascends. To me, they sounded very similar to the Ascend 340SE at moderate volumes, especially on simple pieces with like a single violin or acoustical guitar. But, on rock when it started to get turned up, the Ascends started to sound thin and 2d, while Chris's were full and rich, and slightly more forward. His were the clear winner, but it wasnâ€™t by much. It would be interesting if Ascend would build a floor-standing model. I think it would address the minor issue I had with the 340SE, and probably make me seriously consider upgrading.
My skills arenâ€™t up for building DIY speakers at the moment, so I decided to keep the Ascends 340SEs and purchase the matching center channel and 170SE for the rear. But, I will be taking on a inexpensive DIY speaker project this summer, and maybe some day will try my hand at some expensive DIY speakers to replace the 340SEs.
Addition, both the Dyn Audio 42 and Paradigm Studio 40s in were in my opinion better speakers than the SVS SB-01. Maybe not a better value for the dollar, but a better speaker. This shouldnâ€™t be surprising considering the cost difference. Though, I think it will be really interesting when SVS releases their larger speakers in the coming year.
Pictures coming soon.