I finally have a conclusion to my search. I went with front-ported Salk Songtowers in satin black finish. In short: I love 'em!
Here's the long version:
I broke the "absolute law" for speaker buying---I relied on the Internet to decide what I wanted rather than personal auditions. For me, this just wasn't possible: I work 60 hours a week and have a three-month old baby. Free time is in extremely short supply. But I'm in front of a computer all day for work, so I can spend some time reading online reviews and forums.
I probably could have made time to audition speakers in B&M stores, but I'm not convinced that alone is adequate: the room and placement of speakers have an enormous impact on their sound. So listening to them in a store really only gives you an idea
of their character---kind of like a first date. The way I look at it, a true speaker search involves a lot more courting: an in-home audition, either from an ID company with a liberal return policy or on loan/rented from a B&M store. But that requires a lot of time that I just don't have (not to mention, I think it would have been a test of my wife's patience).
So to continue my dating-and-marriage metaphor, I guess I went with the mail order bride.
I decided that if I'm not going to do a "proper" speaker search, I'm just going to buy from an ID company that offers a speaker with acceptable specs and great reviews.
I took a heuristic approach to speaker shopping.
Ultimately, I settled on the following requirements, roughly in order of importance:
- Must be sold internet-direct, price range $1k to $2k
- Must be taller than the Energy RC-30s (at least 40" tall), with a small enough footprint to fit in their somewhat cramped space (see schematic posted earlier in this thread)
- Must have a lot of good reviews and positive forum feedback
- Preferably a matte-black finish; absolutely no woodgrains or super-shiny "piano" black
- Front ported
Given that, my short list was:
- Salk Songtower
- Swan Diva 6.1
- Axiom M80
The Axioms were the first to be eliminated. At least a couple times I almost bought the "B" stock at a reduced price. Axiom appears to have a fairly easy return policy, and reasonable return shipping rates as well. Ultimately, three things turned me off. (1) Though cheaper than the Songtowers, their stock configuration has a vinyl finish, rather than real wood. That's not a deal-breaker, but if you opt for the real wood laminate finish, the price jumps up to the ST range. Now, I'm fully aware that the Internet isn't the best tool for judging speakers, however, it clearly favors the Songtowers. It's virtually impossible to find a negative ST review, but there are a few pockets of negative Axiom M80 reports. (2) One thing I looked at in my research was the "density" of speakers: I divided the weight of the speaker by the product of its dimensions. I realize this is a crude approximation at best. But I had a spreadsheet of about 20 floorstanding speakers in my price range, and the M80s had the lowest density of them all. In other words, for their size, the M80s are quite light. To me, this hints at questionable build quality. I intend to keep these speakers for a long time---will they survive a few moves? (3) Lastly, they are not strictly front-ported. My awkward room layout forces me to put one speaker uncomfortably close to a wall, and I feel that, generally, a front-ported speaker will be more forgiving in this placement.
Next to go were the Swans. On paper, I liked everything about them except the finish. The real wood finish simply would not match at all in our living room. I showed my wife a picture, and without any hesitation she said "no". That left the vinyl "faux black cherry" finish. I looked at every picture I could find of these speakers in this finish, and still couldn't get a good idea of how they would actually look. In most pictures, they looked so dark that they were practically black, which is what I wanted. But the red did shine through in a few pictures, and I was kind of leery about that. Still, they seemed like a good value: they've been in production for years, I found little or no negative feedback, and other than the red finish, I like the way they look. So I said to myself, is it worth a two-fold increase in price to have a perfect finish? OZ Home Theater also has a decent return policy, so if I got them and they were just too red, I could always send them back. I also felt that the Swans had a much better "bang-for-buck" factor because they are made in China. I'm sure this will be a controversial statement, but it's fact that American labor is much more expensive than Chinese labor. As a consumer in the USA, I've perhaps become spoiled by the "Wal-Mart factor"---the ability to buy foreign-made products at a much lower cost than domestically-made products. Unfortunately, this usually comes with a "you-get-what-you-pay-for" caveat, but all the online Swan commentary suggested that they are very well built, high-quality speakers.
I actually placed an order for the Swan Diva 6.1 at the beginning of March with OZ Home Theater. But they immediately canceled my order, saying they were back ordered on them until the end of the month. I took that as a sign from the "Speaker Divine", and after exchanging a few emails with Jim Salk, I ordered my front-ported satin black Songtowers.
I had one big hesitation with the Songtowers: would they be "loud" enough? I put "loud" in quotes, because it wasn't really more volume that I was looking for; I wanted more sound
at the same volume. As I said in my initial post, the Energies don't sound bad, they just sound "small"; turning up the volume doesn't fix the problem. And if you look at just the specs, the RC-30s and the STs have a very similar driver configuration: two smallish woofers and a tweeter. Whereas the M80 has six total drivers, and the Swan 6.1 has much bigger drivers. I knew height had something to do with it: the short Energies sounded much better when we were sitting on the floor (as opposed to sitting in our furniture or standing). But did I really want to drop $2k just to get taller speakers?
In most of the Salk testimonials I read, people talked about how patient and helpful Jim Salk is before you even send a single dime his way. My experience was absolutely consistent with the positive reports from everyone else. Jim calmed my concerns about the Songtowers having enough "guts" to fill my massive room with music, so I placed the order.
If nothing else, I figured at least I was helping out the US economy.
A few weeks later, I had the speakers up and running. I've had them for a couple weeks now, but unfortunately, due to the same time constraints I mentioned before, I haven't had a chance to really sit down for a long session of critical listening. Actually, a long session of "critical listening" is not what I want to do---I want to sit down for a long session of music enjoyment
. I listened to the speakers for a couple hours the first night I had them, and for semi-distracted 20--60 minute intervals here and there, and I like everything about them!
What really surprised me was that my wife immediately noticed an improvement. My wife has good ears, but isn't nearly as picky as me: as long as it doesn't sound bad, she can enjoy her music. She doesn't get concerned about the minute details. But about half-way through the first song, I hadn't said a word, and she says, "Wow, those really do fill the room. They sound great." She said exactly what I was thinking!
As I said before, I mainly wanted a "bigger" sound; I got that and then some. It's hard to describe: we're not listening louder, but the music is so much more present. With the Energies, I could turn them up more and more, and they would definitely get louder, but they never "filled the room". But with the Songtowers, we don't even have to turn them up to get a lot of sound. I suppose the term soundstage
describes what I am experiencing; if so, then the Songtowers' soundstage is much bigger than the Energy RC-30s' (at least in our overly large room, placed sub-optimally).
Not to mention, the sound quality is just amazing. These are the highest-end speakers I've ever heard by a big margin, but they are without a doubt the best-sounding speakers I've ever heard by the same margin. As I said before, I haven't had a chance to sit down and take detailed notes on their sound. But the immediate "wow" attributes are soundstage, as I already mentioned (it's huge), and the simple fact that all instruments just sound better, more realistic, more life-like.
The finish is also wonderful. My wife hardly believes me that these were hand-made in the USA. It seems that hand-crafted, domestically-produced goods are so rare these days. As you can tell from the fact that I was considering vinyl-finished speakers, the appearance of the speaker wasn't a high priority for me---before I received the Songtowers, I actually felt like I was wasting money on the finish. But, now that I have them set up in our living room, I definitely don't feel that way, and think I actually would have been unhappy with a lesser finish.
The signal chain leading up to the Songtowers is as follows: FLAC-encoded CD rips transported via optical SPDIF to a Harman/Kardon HK-3490 acting as a DAC and preamp. From there, amplification is provided by a QSC RMX2450.
One thing really surprised me: the RC-30s are rated at 92 dB sensitivity at 8 ohms, and the STs are 88 dB at 4 ohms. Due to their lower sensitivity, I expected to have to turn the volume dial up farther on the HK-3490. In fact, I find it generally at a lower
setting compared to with the Energies! I suppose the STs are actually pulling more current due to their lower impedance, so maybe that makes up for it? Either that, or the STs' sensitivity is very conservatively rated and/or the RC-30s' sensitivity is overstated.
Overall, I'm thrilled with the STs. The only downside so far is being unable to find sufficient time to really enjoy them for a long period without any distractions. I was hoping to find some time this weekend, but our three month old just came down with a cold.
I'll also try to find the time to post some pictures.
Thanks to all who provided their feedback and helped with my "heuristic" journey to find the perfect speaker.