I received Ascend CBM-170SE and HTD (Home Theater Direct) Level Three Bookshelf last week. During the holidays I've been comparing them with each other and with my old Wharfedale Pacific Pi30 floorstanders. All speakers are driven by my Panasonic XR57 with its treble set at -2 and speaker size set to "Large" without a subwoofer.
(Edit: HTD Level Two added to the comparison.)
(Edit: Onix x-ls added)
I used only classical music for comparison. My standard for speaker choice is that their playback of stringed instruments and voice must be as close as possible to the tonality of real instruments. I was trained for classical voice music and still do it as a hobby and go to many classical music performances, mostly opera and chamber music. So I don't think that I'm comparing these speakers by highly subjective criteria since I know what strings and voice should sound like. I don't care about, say, how "deep and tight" the bass is, how "sweet" the treble is, how "warm" or "bright" the sound quality is, etc relative to other speakers. My standard is not unambiguous, but it is how well the speakers perform in reproducing the sound of strings and voice as closely as possible to the sound in my memory acquired from concerts.
I personally think the most difficult instrument for a reproduction system to mimic is strings, especially violin in either solo or orchestra. It is also violin that can often be recorded poorly. It can sound harsh, dry, and thin at times. Yes, I know violin can by nature sound harsh and annoying and this characteristic can sometimes be exaggerated through a reproduction system. In my experience, violin sound is just right through my Grado SR225 headphones driven by my old Onkyo integrated amp's headphone amp section, which is above average IMO. So, I use these Grado headphones as a sort of reference in this comparison.Ascend Acoustics CBM-170SE
Very neutral and transparent monitors. I finally found loudspeakers that provide faithful reproduction of strings. I've been enjoying my old Wharfedale's. They have been very pleasant to listen, but they add some coloration compared to my headphones. Actually they make every sound (especially female voice and wind instruments) "prettier" than real. I think this characteristic is due to their Butterworth crossover which "emphasizes" sound around their crossover frequency. I find this pleasant sometimes but not satisfying since I know it's coloration. In fact, the 170SE and the Wharfedale are similar in their SQ, but the 170SE's provide tonality that is closer to that of real instruments and very, very close to that of my Grado headphones. The Wharfedale's are capable speakers with delicate, non-fatiguing high and holographic midrange. But it turns out that I prefer the 170SE's. These Ascends provide things I liked on my old speakers and in addition produce more natural sound. Bass extension is not deep enough especially for full orchestral music, but no wonder considering these are small bookshelf speakers. In sum, they are very neutral and accurate monitors.HTD Level Three Bookshelf
Pleasant to listen, impressive bass extension/quality for a bookshelf, and nice treble extension, but it has a problem in its frequency response. This problem may make pop music sound very pleasant and provide exaggeratedly wide sound stage, but cause stringed instruments to sound very unnatural. Compared to the 170SE, they have a significant dip at around 2 kHz through 3.5 kHz (i.e., around crossover frequency). I measured this using my RadioShack SPL meter and Rives Audio Test CD 2---I compared frequency responses between
speakers since in-room freq response in and of itself is useless due to room characteristics. This anomaly robbs violin of its "body" and leaves only its highs. So violin sounds unnaturally thin. Same thing applies to female voice. Important frequency information contained in female voice is not there. In short, these have very good build quality and perhaps are impressive in pop music reproduction, but are not adequate for classical music.HTD Level Two Bookshelf:
Excellent bass for a small bookshelf speaker. Overall, this one has neutral tonality, much closer to my Grado headphone's than the Level Three. But still has the same kind of characteristic, a bit weak upper midrange response. For this reason, it presents more laid-back sound than the 170SE, but more forward sound than the Level Three. Sort of in-between quality of 170SE and Level Three. With respect to the laid-back and forward dimension, the 170SE has the most forward sound, then my Grado, next Level Two, then my old Wharfedale, and Level Three has the most laid-back sound. Although the Level Two has neutral tonal balance (even closer to the Grado than the 170SE), it is my least favorite of all the above speakers, because of its lack of clarity. Compared to the other speakers, its midrange is not clean (e.g., make female vocal sounding nasal).Onix x-ls:
I almost decided to end my speaker search with the Ascend. Although I liked the clarity of the 170SEs, their bright sound (due to strong mid-highs, 4-5kHz?) felt somewhat fatiguing. So I couldn't help but try another big hit in the ID budget speaker market --- Onix x-ls. So I tried them. It turns out that the 170SEs are better in terms of clarity. But the x-ls's produce more laid-back, nonfatiguing sound at some (but not much) cost of clarity. Despite somewhat laid-back quaity, their sound is not unbalanced like the HTD Level Three. Moreover, they are less expensive than the 170SEs and plus have gorgeous cabinets! So I ended up ordering five identical x-ls's.
Below are my short evaluations on the speakers I compared, in the order of my preference:
1. Onix x-ls
: Tonality is neutral but on a bit warm, laid-back side. Excellent clarity at all frequency ranges. Excellent extension at both ends.
2. Ascend 170SE
: Tonality is neutral but on a bit bright, forward side. Outstanding clarity at all frequency ranges. Excellent treble extension.
3. Wharfedale Pacific Pi-30
: Tonality is not very neutral, but very, very pleasing. Excellent midrange and treble clarity. Nice treble extension. Great bass quantity/extension.
4. HTD Level Three
: Very laid-back sound due to weak upper midrange response, but might be perceived "bright" since it has strong highs. Fair midrange and treble clarity. Good treble extension. Very good bass extension.
5. HTD Level Two
: Neutral, balanced tonality. Average midrange clarity. Nice bass for a small bookshelf.
-- JayNote to those choosing between the x-ls and the 170SE:
According to my measurement, their treble response levels (3kHz and up) are very different from each other. At least 2dB overall difference. Look here: http://www.avsforum.com/avs-vb/showt...&&#post9551681