(second listens and a couple new ones)
I will be using some new music, a lot of it, and a couple of tracks that I have been using already that have proven extremely beneficial to my evaluations. I may not listen to all of them on each speaker (24 tracks total) but they cover a pretty wide musical spectrum and recording quality varies almost as much. For the most part the music I picked is on the upbeat side. Makes the process more positive for me and I think that this music is most likely to reveal flaws in a speakers overall performance.
I am going to stick with the order I listened during auditions, starting off with a couple of seconds...Paradigm Studio 100
I still like the bass of this speaker, it reaches pretty deep and has nice impact. With the percussive slap style bass you can hear the strings rattling on the neck of the upright with ease. My second listen had a few bright moments where some tracks were rendered thin, or jangley. A couple of songs that usually have a huge expansive atmospheric quality to them sounded a bit narrow on the 100's, but other recordings had very nice imaging. My original assessment of this speaker still stands with me... more suited to home theater and movies than to music.Dynaudio Focus 220
Right off I felt more relaxed with this speaker than the studio 100. All the edginess was gone, more of a relaxing listen. Trumpet peaks were more smooth, mid bass was not as punchy, much more of a smooth even sound. Maybe too smooth, though. I missed the sharp highs, but liked the even mids of the Focus 220's. I still found the low bass to be a little indistinct, not really bad or anything, just a little too slow when pushed to it's lower limits with music like Beenie Man (dancehall Reggae). They did much better with jazz, rock, and blues. This is still a good all-arounder, but a little expensive for it's performance if you ask me.
Those two speakers pretty much bookend the sound I am looking for, but neither one is right for me. I asked the salesman if he had anything that was in the same price range and had a sound kind of in between those two. He smiled and directed me to...Focal Chorus 836-V:
Trumpets sounded nice here, a little more edge than the Focus 220's, and not as much as the Studio 100's. Strings rattled properly against the neck of the acoustic bass when slapped around. Overall sound was clear, and well defined, with a nice balance. A couple of songs in I wonder how high these go, because to me, they sound like they are rolled off at the top with cymbal rides, coming across not quite real. Vocals sounded good, electric bass had a full blanketing sound, not overly punchy but had some impact. Fu Manchu sounded really good on these speakers, guitars were thick and mean. The male vocals of Bill Withers sounded natural. Erykah Badu sounded good on the Focal's, so did the J.B.'s. Bass tightness was better than the Focus 220's, depth seemed about the same. They did a very nice job picking up the overtones of electric bass. The tone of Wes Montgomery's guitar was good but not great. One of the new tracks I brought along was like a rolling stone by Jimi Hendrix from the Jimi plays Monterey CD. Not a the best recording, but it sounded really bad on these speakers. A couple of songs that I included just to see if i would get the chills, came close on one but not the others. For some reason the Focal 836-V seemed to handle male vocals better than female. They really did peg the in between sound (Focus 220 & Studio 100) that I asked for and I liked the overall sound here. Aesthetically, I didn't care for the chevron shaped grills, or the French glitzy feel I got from these speakers. I like the looks of Focals higher-end Electra line much, much better...
Of the three, I actually liked the overall sound of the Focals the best (for music), and the understated look of the Dynaudio's. But, I don't think any of these three will find a place in my home. If I had a dedicated HT setup, I would seriously be considering the Studio 100's.
That was Monday. On Tuesday, as you may already know I had an appointment for some more seconds.....Usher Be-718 Tiny Dancer
First off I really like the way that brass sounds with the Be tweeter, crisp and clear but not edgy or piercing. Cymbal work also comes across nicely. I notice that acoustic bass seems to miss the lowest notes, today, I did not notice this before. If they are present, they are several dB's lower than they should be. This wouldn't be any problem whatsoever, if these were used in conjunction with a sub. Listening to Come Together I really miss the fullness of the larger floor standers, but feel that they do a good job overall. I got the same feeling of missing the fullness with Fu Manchu. Ain't No Sunshine, by Bill Withers sounded excellent on the Ushers, vocals were full and rich and a big open space was created for the sound-stage. What ever these things lack in depth they make up for in speed, they did a good job separating the bass and kick drum beats, even when they were close together. Somehow the mids started to sound a little on the lean side as I listened to more music on the Tiny Dancers. Imaging was good with most music though not great. After hearing the higher-end speakers these are not as impressive as the first listen, though I still think they are quite good for their size. In case anybody wonders, I like them more than the Ascend Sierra's but I think that the Sierra's would be a better value.Era D-14
I wanted to give these a fair shake, because the last time I had listened was right after the Dali Icon's and I had the impression that their highs were lacking. This time I thought they actually sounded pretty nice. And speaking of pretty, they are very easy on the eyes, high WAF with the Era's. Very evenly balanced presentation here, everything sounded good across the board. Forgiving, laid-back speaker. Imaging was pretty mediocre, sound was easy to locate as coming out of the speakers. Nothing made me say wow, and nothing sounded really bad. This could be a good, or bad thing depending on your perspective, I want something a bit more dynamic than the Era D-14.Totem Hawk
This is a hard one to write for a lot of reasons. One, because I still really like this speaker. Two, because I have heard better ones. Three because it does so much really well, and I have found a weakness. The Totem Hawk really delivers a big musical sound out of a small very handsome looking cabinet. I have heard that many people feel that Totem has a bright sound to their speakers and until I listened to them a third time I didn't have any idea what they were talking about. The Hawks are fairly inefficient speakers, and the low end suffers most if they are not driven with adequate power. The first time I heard them was with 200 watts behind them, the second and third were with 75 watts (if I remember correctly). I still would not consider the Hawk to be a bright speaker, though after my last listen I would say that they are indeed voiced with an accent on the high end. The Thiels come to mind as bright, The Hawks are detailed and accurate with almost everything I threw at them. Imaging is some of the best at this price. Cymbals, snare drums and pianos sound very real on the Hawks. Vocals also sound very good. Both Erykah Badu and Fu Manchu sound excellent. Guitar tone is right on, and so is the sound of the brass instruments. Bass is fast and tight, though not as full bodied as the more expensive speakers I have heard. One of the new tracks I listened to was Even After All by Finley Quaye, it is really a beautiful song and I included it as a song that might give me the chills but it proved to have an additional value. The bass is pretty deep and very full; the Hawks were doing fine, in this department, with every song before this one. I noticed a little bit of distortion while there was a sustained bass note, and then a kick drum beat in the song. Walking up close you could almost see the driver wanting to suck back in but immediately kicking back out to cover the kick drum, producing a distorted ugthmp rather than a clean thump. It was subtle and only on this song. Overall I still think this is a great speaker, and if I have to compromise on price this may be a good one to settle on. My main concern with the Hawk is that I know I would want to upgrade in a couple of years or sooner. They offered to lend me the pair for an in home audition and i may have to take them up on that. Between the SongTowers and the Hawks, it is a very tough call for me. They both have their strengths and they both have weaknesses.Dali Helicon 300:
A couple of people have suggested that I listen to something in the Dali Helicon line and the shop I was at had a pair of of 300's that had been knocked over by a customer and then repaired. The 400, which I am more interested in, was not in stock, and the dealer told me that these were an older model that has since been updated. Neither of us were sure what the revision included. The Helicon 300's that I listened to were a similar size to the Usher Be-718's, and PSB Synchrony's that had I listened to before. Kind of largish for a bookshelf speaker, I guess this size is more commonly referred to as stand mount. The cabinets and finish on these Dali's was top notch; very, very nice looking.
I started with the Girl From Ipanema and thought that the male vocal had nice resonance, and instrumentation was crisp, clear and natural sounding. Once again the ribbon tweeters provided ultra clear and crisp cymbal reproduction, but this time without any harshness. So far only the ribbons have provided a truly accurate sound on cymbals. Wes Montgomery's guitar tone was spot-on. Excellent separation of sound and nice balance. Bongo drums on Sunny sounded like hands slapping the skins. This music was very easy to listen to on the Dali's. Finley Quaye's even after all sounded good here, the guitar tone was exceptional (again), and the bass seemed to reach fairly deep (at least as deep as the Ushers) though was lacking a little fullness (like the Ushers). This lack of fullness seems to be the major difference between the stand-mount and floor standers, they reach almost as deep but lack the body of the floor standers. Miles Davis' trumpet sounded real, on All of You, so did the sax but that did get a little piercing on some of the runs. Slap-style, upright bass string percussive effects sounded good with Medeski, Martin and Wood. The actual bass notes sounded recessed though. With John Lee Hooker everything sounded good, standouts being guitar tone and cymbals, but overall nice balance to the sound. When I played Come Together I again missed the fullness of bass and the low end of it, though upper to mid-bass section sounded very good, providing the blanketing feeling that I look for. Guitars sounded really good again, and vocals seemed to be slightly back in the mix like they should be with this song. Fu Manchu sounded good but the high guitar notes were a little piercing. On ain't no sunshine, Bill Withers, when the strings come in they sound excellent, and his vocal sounds quite good here too. Erykah Badu sounds good, except the missing ultra-low notes. Everything else sounded pretty good on these speakers, the Pretenders had a nice little sparkle to their sound, and they did a good job with atmospherics when fed electronic music.
I liked this speaker, though I still want deeper bass from my fronts. I don't know if I am just getting used to the ribbon tweeter sound or if the Helicons do a better job implementing it, but they sounded really nice to me. I have come to the realization that if you want truly accurate cymbal reproduction, ribbons are the only way to go, they get the sizzle that everything else seems to fall just short of, soft domes being the worst at this singular aspect of sound. This does come at a price though, as every single ribbon I have heard has had at least one harsh or piercing moment with either brass, or with high electric guitar notes. These Dali's are no exception, though they really are fantastic speakers. Now I really want to hear the 400... or even the 800!Jump to Final Round ?